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Summarizing a Source
Author: Sydney Bauer

This lesson discusses how to effectively summarize information from a source.

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You probably summarize more often than you think. When you tell your friend what you did over the weekend, you are summarizing. You aren’t going to include every detail about what you did, but you will mention the main events. 


Summary is a way to maintain the general ideas of a source, paragraph, or even sentence, but the language is your own, and the ideas are much more compact. Whenever you condense information by making general statements about the overall ideas or concepts in your own words, you are summarizing.


Method 1 for effective summary:

  • Read the material from the source all the way through once.

  • Read the material from the source a second time, highlighting or underlining the main ideas.

  • Write the main ideas in your own words. It helps to put the source away during this part, so you aren’t tempted to look at or rely on the words and phrasing of the source.


Method 2 for effective summary:

  • Read the source material all the way through once.

  • Go back and read it a second time. While you are reading it a second time, highlight or underline any key terms or phrases that you think are the most important.

  • Make a list of those key terms or phrases on a sheet of paper and (in your own words) write down how the source makes connections between them.


Avoiding Plagiarism when summarizing sources:

Plagiarism is when a writer claims someone else’s ideas, words, or phrasing as their own. The best way to avoid plagiarism is to cite your sources. Whenever you use summarized information, use a signal phrase that connects that information to the author and the source.

  • Mather’s ideas can be summarized as…

  • Jacob’s main ideas discuss…


Not only do you need to cite your sources when you summarize them in your writing, but you must also relate the summarized information to the ideas within your paper. Just like quoted and paraphrased material, you never want to leave the reader guessing as to how the ideas of the source connect to the ideas in your paper.


Let’s look at two examples:

First Example: Summary of Dr. Seuss’s Bartholomew and the Oobleck.

Bartholomew worked as a servant to the King of the Kingdom of Did. The King grew bored of the sky: it could only produce sun, fog, snow, and rain. He wanted it to produce something else. He had Bartholomew send for the old mystical men from the kingdom. The old men arrived, chanted, and made a potion. The next day the oobleck came down from the sky. It stuck to everything and everyone. No one could go anywhere or do anything without getting hopelessly stuck: the kingdom was at a stand still. The King called the old mystics back, but they had no way of undoing their spell; it would have to run its course. Finally, Bartholomew demanded an apology from the King for his selfish and prideful ways. The King reluctantly apologized. Just then, the sun came out and the oobleck melted away.



Notice the language of the summary: there are not very many descriptive words, and the playful language that Dr. Seuss originally used to write the book is also missing. All that is left is the basic play-by-play of the major events in the plot.


Lets take a look at summarizing an academic source.


Second Example: Summary of “Ideologies in Children’s Literature: Some Preliminary Notes” By Ruth B. Moynihan

Moynihan maintains that the literature a society produces for its children to read will almost always contain the dominant values and social norms of that society. Within her preliminary notes, Moynihan points to three well-known works as examples: The Wizard of Oz, Winnie the Pooh, and The Little Engine That Could. For each example, Moynihan positions the work in the time period in which it was published and the cultural response to the text. For the purposes of this paper, it is important to note how she connected The Little Engine That Could with the Great Depression in the United States. The Little Engine That Could expressed the value of optimism, persistence, and perseverance at the time. It provided an example of how hard work can overcome any obstacle. The book was wildly popular with both kids and parents. The kids enjoyed the story of a train determined to deliver gifts and toys; the parents enjoyed escaping into a story of hope and success, even if it was only for a little while.



Although Martin Amis cleverly named his short story “The Little Puppy That Could,” there is no mention of trains, toys, or the famous phrase “I think I can, I think I can…” It is possible that Amis was pointing to the fact that a society at the mercy of the Great Depression produced a book that promotes hope, success, and perseverance. The world of his short story is at the mercy of a post-nuclear apocalypse in which his characters are immobilized by fear. It is the bravery of a small puppy that brings them hope.


The original article was more than 10 pages long and covered several works in-depth. For the purposes of the paper, the summary of Moynihan’s article only focused on one specific part of the article: the discussion of The Little Engine That Could. To do that, I isolated that part of the article and gave a few general statements about the source material. I then made connections between the summarized material from the source and the ideas about Martin Amis’s short story in the paper. Just as a writer might use a quote to support his or her claims, the summary is used to support this analysis. 

Summarizing a Source