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Online Guide to Writing and Research

Thinking Strategies and Writing Patterns

Patterns for Presenting Information

Summaries and Abstracts

When you summarize, you provide the main points of something: a book, an article, a movie, a play. Almost anything can be summarized, and if you work with source material at all while writing your college papers, you will inevitably summarize something. 


Summaries are part of almost any paper. For example, a conclusion should include a summary of what has come before. Some papers, like article or book reviews, require summaries as a section of the paper. For other papers, you will be required to provide an “executive summary,” a prologue to a business document for executives who may only have time to read a summary of the document.

  • Present a balanced view of your material.

  • Give equal coverage to all parts of the material.

  • Use a neutral tone in your writing.

  • Keep the author’s material distortion-free. 

  • Summarize in your own words.


Take a class in the sciences or social sciences, and you will almost certainly read a scholarly article. You will notice that often the articles begin with something called an “abstract.” This is a particular kind of summary. It helps readers determine whether to read the entire study. To the degree that an abstract differs from other summaries, it generally differs in emphasis. An abstract prioritizes the research question, thesis, and major findings of a work. When writing an abstract, your focus should be on the essential content of what you are summarizing.

Those who catalog information and create research reference materials also use abstracts. Most information-retrieval systems can scan the key words in an abstract and retrieve the source it is based on. 

Depending on the discipline in which you are writing, you may be asked to write an abstract for a research report, seminar paper, or a scholarly paper. Many graduate theses and dissertations require them.

Because abstracts help readers decide whether they want to read the original source, the content is quite compressed. Your abstract should contain only a few sentences, perhaps only three to five. You should include the key words that reveal the major idea of the original material to identify the field of study involved.


Key Takeaways

  • Summaries are condensed restatements of factual information.

  • Abstracts are condensed restatements of the main points and findings of an entire paper.

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