making a summary #literatureknowhow

Over the course of the PhD you have to read a lot. After having written an initial literature review, you keep reading and reading throughout your project. And when you’re done with your field or library work, and analysed your data, you begin to write the final text, well a thesis first draft. This is the point at which you often have to go back to the initial literatures that you read. But it was so long ago. Can you remember what that book was about? Not all of it? 


Does this mean that you have to read some of the same things all over again?

Well possibly. But possibly not – not if you made good summaries of the key texts the first time you read them.

Summary is at the very heart of dealing with academic literatures. It is the first step that you take when you want to understand a book or paper in detail – particularly those in your inner library.

A summary text usually does the following:

(1) provides clear and detailed information about your source document.
“Key information” – author, title, date, keywords etc – is usually programmed into bibliographic software such as Endnote, Mendeley and Zotero and it may even be entered automatically if you are working with a text you have ‘imported’. If you’re using other recording methods, you need to make sure you use consistent comprehensive categories to note this information. 
(2) focuses first of all on the purpose of the text – the overall “controlling” idea, the point of the paper or book.

(3) provides the main evidence, or “supporting points” that are presented to make the case for the controlling idea. The paper or book might be written, for example:
• to analyse the causes of something,
• to indicate a position on an issue,
• to offer a new interpretation of a text(s),
• to offer solutions to a problem,
• to pose a problem in a new way,
• to challenge an existing way of understanding things…

A summary is always a retelling of the original. It is in your own words. If you simply repeat snatches from the paper or book, then you are less likely to have understood the paper. Rewriting in your own words is a way of “owning” the point and argument.

The summary is not a list. It is a coherent mini-version of the original, in which you have to show the connections between the “supporting points” and the overall “controlling idea”. It is more important to make these connections than it is to follow the exact structure of the original piece. The summary is not a small identikit of the original.

The summary uses “summary markers” to remind the reader (a future you) that these are not your ideas. So these are generally something like “The writer proposes that.. they suggest.. they offer… they provide.. they maintain.. they conclude.. “

The summary is succinct. It is not a rewriting of the entire piece – you might just as well save yourself the bother if you write pages and pages. A good summary is short and pithy.

Any reader apart from you, or you when you come back to the piece again two years after your initial reading and summary-making, should be able to read the summary and understand the most salient points about, and key features of, the original.

Some key making-a-summary questions to ask when reading a paper or book are:

(1) What is the purpose of this paper/book? Why did the writer write this piece?
a. to analyse the causes of something,
b. to indicate a position on an issue,
c. to offer a new interpretation of a text(s),
d. to offer solutions to a problem,
e. to pose a problem in a new way,
f. to challenge an existing way of understanding things…

So write … “ The writer argues /proposes that”… and make the general purpose  specific to the topic e.g. “The paper examines the increase in domestic violence in England and proposes three primary reasons.

(2) Identify the main evidence, the “supporting points” that are offered. “The writer offers three primary reasons – first, second and third”

(3) Establish the connections between the evidence and the overall argument.

“The writer argues that… because this then that; in addition to a then b and C; not only X but also y and z ; due to a and b; there is this and also that; contrary to x its actually y; as for x, similarly y; for instance; as a result of a then b ….

The answers you provide to these three questions are what  you need to write a short summary.

At this point you might also add any quotations (don’t forget the page numbers) that you think are particularly important, or notes which connect this text to others, or any questions or comments that you have about the paper/book. These are added at the end of the summary so that they cannot be confused two years later with the original piece. They are clearly labelled as comment, link, question etc.

Some of this material is adapted from Bjork, Lennart and Raisenen, Christine (2003) Academic writing. A university writing course. Lund: Studentlitteratur

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in literature review, summary and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to making a summary #literatureknowhow

  1. Susan Gollifer says:

    I needed this post/advice about two years ago. But still useful now as I return to those “forgotten” articles/books! Excellent practical post as always. Thanks.


  2. Pingback: Recording your reading | Marginal Notes

  3. maelorin says:

    Sometimes you have to go back to the original source and revise your summary, particularly if it has been a few years, because you might understand it differently.

    I also include notes about links to other work; especially those that occur to me that aren’t explicit in the original text. Putting those after a summary of the author’s work, and any quotations.

    Though I do wish I were more disciplined and did this for every (important?) source.


  4. Biblioteca Carlos Albizu Miranda says:
  5. Pingback: working with literatures #phdknowhow | patter

  6. Ruth Read says:

    Thank you, this is so useful.


  7. Pingback: Making a Literature Summary | An Abstracted Collective

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