How to Write a Formal Summary

Writing formal summaries is an important component of research, particularly when that research is based more on an analysis of primary and secondary writing, rather than testing, experimentation or case studies. Formal summaries are most often employed in documents such as annotated bibliographies and in literature reviews, where a piece of writing is either summarized to indicate its usefulness for future research projects, or it is summarized so that it can be analyzed, evaluated and compared to other written documents. Writing a formal summary is a standardized process that requires you to consider only the point a text attempts to make free from any evaluative judgment.

Identify the thesis, main point(s) or argument(s) of the text you are summarizing. Though there are many strategies for locating a thesis in a text (last sentence of the first paragraph, follows or answers the guiding question etc.), the most reliable way to determine the main point of a piece of writing is to simply ask of it "Why did the author write this? What was or is she attempting to accomplish?"

Articulate the points that support the piece's thesis, main points or arguments. If you are summarizing a formal argument, the main points will typically be separated into distinct paragraphs or sections of the writing. If summarizing a narrative or other piece of creative writing, identify the major plot points that advance the story line.

Explain the method of argumentation or narrative progression the writer used to reach his thesis, main points or arguments. If summarizing a formal argument, identify the various rhetorical appeals (ethos, logos and pathos) the author makes in the writing. If summarizing a narrative or other piece of creative writing, analyze the figural and descriptive writing that advances the story or poem.

List and describe the evidence or supporting information the author uses to support her argument (if formal) or describe the setting of the piece (if creative).

Describe the method the author used to gather the information. This final step is only necessary if you are summarizing a formal argument.

  • Often, writers do not limit themselves to one, overarching main point, though inexperienced or irresponsible scholars and teachers insist otherwise. For example, many scholars wrongly assume Doris Lessing's "Group Minds" posits only one main point pertaining to Western education simply because that is the last point that she makes in the piece. In such situations, it is not only acceptable, but it is necessary for a formal summary to indicate each competing point in the piece.
About the Author

Samuel Hamilton has been writing since 2002. His work has appeared in “The Penn,” “The Antithesis,” “New Growth Arts Review" and “Deek” magazine. Hamilton holds a Master of Arts in English education from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Arts in composition from the University of Florida.

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