Patterns for Presenting Information

Summaries and Abstracts

Very likely, you will be asked sometime during your college career to write a summary of research sources, a procedure, a book, an article, or some other piece of information. Your summary may be presented orally, in writing, informally, formally, or for an exam. You may even be asked to summarize information in a graphical format. Summaries can be simple, using just a few key words, or they may be more complex, depending on your purpose for writing them.

Writing a summary is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your understanding of course material. Many students mistakenly think that simply repeating the key words from the material suffices. In summarizing, not only are you asked to repeat in your own words what you know (demonstrate comprehension), but you may be asked to evaluate the summarized information or draw several ideas together in a summary (evaluate and synthesize).

Here are some tips for summarizing:

Opening summaries give just the essential content, results, and conclusions and may be brief. Formal summaries, such as an executive summary, may be 1–5 percent of the original material in length and reflect the organization of the original source. Remember that your purpose is to present faithfully the contents of the original source.

Abstracts, on the other hand, are used by readers to decide whether to read a source in full. They are compressed versions of the essential content of a source. 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. You may be asked to write an abstract for a research report and certainly for a seminar paper or a scholarly paper. Most assuredly, you will write an abstract for a graduate thesis or dissertation.

Because abstracts help readers decide whether they want to read the original, the content is quite compressed. Your abstract will 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.