Nothing strikes fear into the hearts of some students more than a writing assignment. I anticipate the groans and complaints before I tell students what we will be doing and I totally understand their feelings. Writing isn’t easy for many reasons. It requires you to do many things all at the same time. First, there’s understanding a subject well enough to be able to write about it. Then, you need to be able to translate that understanding into your own thoughts that you intend to communicate. Next, take those thoughts and turn them into sentences. Finally, there is the actual output of those thoughts onto paper or onto a screen. If you struggle with any (or all) of these steps, then writing is going to be a challenge.
That said, there are certain strategies that can help and different strategies are used for different types of writing. For example, the method of attack for a research paper is different from the way you approach a compare and contrast essay. Today, we will talk about how to write an effective summary in your own words that addresses the main idea and important details. You can use this strategy with both fiction and nonfiction. Are you still awake? I know learning how to write isn’t exciting or glamorous, but if you understand how this works, then you can use it to summarize a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. You can think of it as another tool in your English language toolbox.
- Read. Reread. Reread again, if needed. The first step in writing an effective summary is to understand what you have read. This may mean reading the selection more than once. When reading, I like to follow along with my pencil under each word. On my first read through a passage I don’t mark the paper—my pencil tip hovers just above the words. I find that this keeps me focused and engaged. I also like having my pencil ready to underline when the time comes.
- Underline or highlight main ideas and important details. Now that you understand the selection, go back to the beginning and mark it up. You can do this with a highlighter or by underlining with your pencil. Remember, when you’re writing a summary, you are only going to include the most important and essential information, so that is the only stuff you should be marking.
- On a separate sheet of paper, take notes on the main idea and important details that you highlighted or underlined. When you take notes, you should be writing incomplete sentences. These notes are for your use and you will turn them into complete sentences later in your summary. Here’s the key...these notes need to be in your own words. If you don’t do this, your summary will sound exactly like the passage and you could be guilty of plagiarism. Turning the main idea and details into your own words may be the hardest part, but once you get through this, writing the summary is a piece of cake.
- Write your summary. Try to use only your notes. Resist the temptation to look back at the passage or article! If your notes are about the main idea and important details and are written in your own words, then your notes should be all that you need. Remember that your notes are not in complete sentences. Be sure to read your notes carefully and add in words to make your sentences complete. When you are finished, read over what you wrote and look for errors in spelling and grammar. If you have time, ask a friend or adult to read what you wrote. Another set of eyes is almost always helpful.
Now you have a strategy! Having a plan can certainly make writing less stressful because you know how to start and you know what to do next. Writing is a process and the only way to get better at writing is to write more. I would bet you’ve heard that before! So, don’t be afraid or reluctant to write. What’s the worst that could happen? You write a less than stellar summary? Gotta start somewhere. The next one will be better.
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