Patterns for Presenting Information

Summaries and Abstracts

It is very likely that, sometime during your college career, you will be asked 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 also be asked to evaluate the summarized information or draw several ideas together in a summary (evaluate and synthesize).

Here are some tips for summarizing:

  • Always present a balanced view of your material.
  • Always give equal coverage to all parts of the material.
  • Always use a neutral tone in your writing.
  • Always keep the author’s material distortion-free.
  • Always summarize in your own words.

Opening summaries provide only 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 faithfully present 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 source, 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.

  • 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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