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How to summarise an article

Many students and teachers dislike writing summaries, and some novice teachers can’t help their students because they admit that they can’t write summaries themselves. They mark students’ summaries using the teacher’s book and the examples given. However, it is easy to write a summary and knowing how to summarise an article is a very useful skill.

Summarising a factual article is not difficult. On the other hand, summarising a descriptive passage or article is. If you omit all the descriptive words, you will be left with a very simple text which has lost most of its tone and ‘flavour.’ Luckily you will rarely be asked to summarise an article which contains rich descriptions.

The types of article that you usually need to summarise are scientific articles or academic articles. To summarise these well, you need to thoroughly understand them. You may need to check facts in an encyclopaedia (in print or online) and you really should use a good dictionary and thesaurus. (Ask your tutor or supervisor to recommend them.) The latter is best for finding synonyms and antonyms which are necessary for paraphrasing. It is of paramount importance that you understand the article you are going to summarise.


If the article is rather complex, read it and run your verbal understanding of it past your friend. Hopefully, if you have got something wrong, your friend will be able to explain why what you thought was wrong. Friends are not as judgemental as some tutors, so it is often easy to ask them rather than your supervisor for help. Remember, though, that if you don’t get on well with your supervisor, you can always ask your head of department if you can be assigned another supervisor.

If you have a friend who is a native speaker of English and very well-educated, ask him or her to help you. If you have discovered a new word in the article you are to summarise, try it out on your friend. Make a sentence with it and ask if you have used it correctly. Often there are subtle differences in usage between synonyms.

You shouldn’t, when you are in higher education, use a dictionary which gives words and meanings in your own language. It is much better to use an English-English dictionary. If you use a students’ dictionary, it will probably give you example sentences which demonstrate how the target word is used.

When you use a thesaurus, you need to check the meanings of the synonyms and antonyms listed as they will have at least subtly different meanings. It is painstaking work, but it cannot be avoided if your aim is to write well and obtain good grades. It is better to take time over your work than to rush and fail a course or an assignment.

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  1. First of all, read the article through carefully several times to get the gist.
  2. Make notes of the main points or underline them.
  3. Paragraph by paragraph find the main idea.
  4. Put the main ideas into one or two paragraphs.
  5. Omit all adjectives and adverbs.
  6. Read through the notes and main points and write your summary.
  7. If necessary, cut out the linking words, conjunctions and phrases such as ‘on the other hand’; instead use ‘firstly’ etc.
  8. Count the words to be sure you do not go over the limit if you are asked to summarise a text in an examination. You could be penalised if the word length is over the set limit.

Be prepared to redraft and edit your work.

Native speakers can often write a summary in fewer words than a non-native speaker of English. In an examination, this is taken into account. When examiners set a summary as an exam task, they pilot the text and ask proficient native speakers (possibly other examiners) to write the summary. Then when everyone has more or less the same number of words in the summary, examiners add around 25 extra words to accommodate non-native speakers. Sometimes the summaries are done a second time and checked by different summary writers so that the summary pares the original text to the bone.

The old adage, practice makes perfect, is certainly true when it comes to writing summaries. To perfect your summary writing skills, you need a lot of practice. If your first language is not English, you might be able to attend classes for non-native speakers of English. Find out if there are classes which are aimed at teaching non-native speakers academic writing skills. These typically last for a semester and they will almost certainly help with summary writing skills as well as essay writing.

Although you may be able to write very well in your own language, you will probably find that writing conventions differ across cultures. For example, in cultures in which the concept of ‘face’ and ‘face-saving’ is important, the writing style will be less direct and open than the style favoured in the UK, the US and Australia, for example. Flowery language is not acceptable in science departments in these countries, for example. Writing is expected to be straightforward and direct. This is also true of summary writing of course. You are not expected to demonstrate your wonderful literary style (in your own language, that is), with all its embellishments. All you have to do is write in an academic manner, and when writing a summary, you have to be as brief and clear as possible.

Attending a university writing class may take up some of your leisure time, but if you want to get good grades, devoting time to studying how to write may be necessary.

Ask your supervisor or tutors to help you enrol on a course if necessary.

As you are not in an exam situation, you can find an article related to your subject area.

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