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How to Write a Summary

Learning how to write a summary is a valuable skill. Learning how to teach what is and what is not a summary may be even more valuable. A summary is the one writing application that focuses equally on what should be included and what should not be included.

Definition: A summary condenses (shortens) an expository text to its main ideas and major details.

A summary is not…

  • A re-tell of a story. There are no main ideas in the narrative genre. The structure of a narrative work is completely different than that of an expository work.
  • An abstract. A research abstract has a different structure and purpose than say an essay.
  • A review. A review is designed to report on the good and the bad. Its purpose is to opine.
  • An analysis. Summaries list and explain, but do not analyze.

A summary is…

  • Usually no more than one-third of the expository text length and is often much less. The length depends upon the text itself and the purpose of the summary.
  • A useful, brief version that faithfully reflects the main idea(s) and major details of the expository text. Yes, there can be more than one main idea in a summary.
  • Designed to inform or explain such that the readers will be able to decide whether they need or want to read the full expository text.
  • Used to check the readers’ comprehension of an expository text.
  • Used to reinforce the main ideas and major details of an expository text.
  • A stand-alone application. It can be understood on its own and is not dependent upon the expository work from which it is developed.
  • Flexible enough to condense all manner of expository text: definition, analysis, description, persuasion, classification, comparison, and more, and is found in textbooks, encyclopedias, scientific books/journals, atlases, directions, guides, biographies, newspapers, essays, manuals, directions, and more.

Prerequisite Skills to Scaffold


  • Don’t include what is not in the expository text. A summary should be like an umbrella, designed to cover the subject and nothing beyond the subject.
  • Don’t comment on, analyze, or offer opinion.
  • Don’t compare to another subject beyond the information provided in the expository text.
  • Don’t write in first or second person.
  • Don’t ask questions.
  • Don’t use bullets or any form of outline. A summary is not simply a list of ideas.
  • Don’t refer to the summary itself. For example, “This summary is about…”


    • Maintain a consistent author’s voice that is clear, concise, yet impersonal.
    • Write in third person.
    • Include passive voice, if needed to emphasize objectivity.
    • Mimic the organizational pattern of the expository work. If cause-effect, chronological, reasons-based, reflect that presentation in your summary. Structure often communicates meaning.
    • Write in your own words, but when the original author’s words are the most concise presentation of the main ideas or details you should quote and properly cite.
    • Use sentence variety. An effective summary is never boring.


Teaching Essays


The author’s TEACHING ESSAYS BUNDLE includes the three printable and digital resources students need to master the CCSS W.1 argumentative and W.2 informational/explanatory essays. Each no-prep resource allows students to work at their own paces via mastery learning. How to Teach Essays includes 42 skill-based essay strategy worksheets (fillable PDFs and 62 Google slides), beginning with simple 3-word paragraphs and proceeding step-by-step to complex multi-paragraph essays. One skill builds upon another. The Essay Skills Worksheets include 97 worksheets (printables and 97 Google slides) to help teachers differentiate writing instruction with both remedial and advanced writing skills. The Eight Writing Process Essays (printables and 170 Google slides) each feature an on-demand diagnostic essay assessment, writing prompt with connected reading, brainstorming, graphic organizer, response, revision, and editing activities. Plus, each essay includes a detailed analytical (not holistic) rubric for assessment-based learning.

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  1. Dick Hanna
    November 24th, 2010 at 16:39 | #1

    Teachers who teach that there is only one main idea in an expository article really do a disservice to their students. Sometimes there is, but sometimes there isn’t. Good clarification re: the difference between and summary and a re-tell. We don’t summarize stories.

  2. Donell Kyagaba
    September 20th, 2021 at 02:16 | #2

    I found the article helpful

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