summaries it's hard work to write clearly

The Soft Science of the Summary

By: Marilyn L. Davis

“One man’s generalization is another man’s succinct yet profound summation of a complex theory or argument.” ― Stewart Stafford

The Summary: Not Just Your First Paragraph

A good summary has three basic characteristics: conciseness, accuracy, and objectivity, but many writers struggle with reducing their posts to a summary, just as they have difficulty creating a short, but meaningful tagline

Unfortunately, many writers simply copy and paste their first paragraph hoping that this will attract readers when they get stuck condensing their 1500 word post into a 30 word summary.  This is not only a waste of space, but you’ve made the reader view the same information twice, as the summary or the first paragraph are often part of how your post is presented on your site. 

My other blog, From Addict 2 Advocate’s theme reprints the first paragraph from the post. Either the title, or the brief opening remarks might be enough to get a reader interested. However, I still have another opportunity in a summary or excerpt to attract readers. 

Excerpts Give You Extra Exposure

In WordPress, look for the excerpt box and create a summary that is concise, but also remember that this is good space to include a call to action, or a teaser for information you have in the post. I’ve hopefully done that with the question, “How can you do that?”

Improving your summary gives you an opportunity to capture more readers. Excerpts and summaries are the second most important feature of your article. The first of course is your original content. Your readers saw words in your title that were interesting, informative or they realized there could be something in the piece that would benefit them.

However, before they ever read your article, they typically read a summary. Are you making the most of that premium space?

After all, it does not matter if your end sentence is killer if no one reads beyond the summary. So what's in a good summary? Click To Tweet

A good summary contains:

• Less than five sentences: Condensing the essence of the article
• Questions: who, what, why, when, where that readers ask
• An overview or impression of the entire article, not just the first paragraph
Passion, knowledge, or enthusiasm for the subject
• Active Verbs

Writing a Basic Summary

How do you accomplish those five criteria in a few short words?

  1. Condensing, without losing the core of your article, is difficult for some writers. What is the essence of your article? The essence is the spirit, heart, or the fundamental message. It does not have to be long to be informative; however, it needs to capture in as few words as possible, the substance or main points of the article.
  2. Questions in your summary take you from writer to reader. Regardless of your subject, there would naturally be questions asked about it. Therefore, you switch places with the reader and ask the questions that would be commonplace for the topic within your summary.
  3. An overview is merely the overall impression, synopsis, or general idea and theme of your entire article.
  4. Without passion, knowledge, and enthusiasm for a subject, written to invite a reader to continue with the article, why should anyone read something that even you cannot make appealing?
  5. Learn the difference between active and passive verbs. In general, active verbs energize your readers while passive verbs appear flat and dull. Search Google for additional or specific topic lists of active and passive verbs to further expand your own vocabulary and improve the quality of your writing. Within the summary, it is important to describe your article in an interesting voice.

Bad Summaries: Learn from What Does Not Work

Sometimes I learn from examples of what does not work. If you are like me, then giving you examples of poor summaries might prove helpful.

• “In this summary, I will tell you what the article is about.” Well, of course, you are, that is the point.

• “Do you know that…?” Now you have potentially offended your reader as they do know a few things, or you have come across in a condescending and patronizing manner.

Neither of those welcomes the reader nor makes them want to read further. However, if you can phrase the information in a way that let’s your readers know that you’re excited that you just discovered something, asking them if they know something is okay.

• “In today’s society or world…,”

A. You are not the spokesperson for society or the world.
B. Whatever you are writing is merely your viewpoint or opinion.

Keep it personal to you.

When It’s Been Said Before

I sometimes like using quotations as a summary. Think about it logically. These are writers, authors, experts, and celebrities giving you a sound bite on your topic. Quotes are generally short, informative, and may capture the essence of your post. 



If you believe that there is a particular person who adds relevance to your writing, search for them. Know there’s just the right words to describe your topic? Narrow your search to a few keywords. Are you writing about writing? Then look for current bestselling authors. Do you want to add more authenticity to your summary? Then look for classic writers and authors.

Also, do not overlook the ancients. If people still quote them, it’s fair to say that their words are still relevant.

There is one drawback to using ‘famous people’ in your summary though. Readers may assume that the writing is by that person, or if they are controversial, a quote by them may negatively influence a reader.  For instance, the quote from Woody Allen when he summarized War and Peace as a book about Russia is a great example of a bad summary, but many people are not enamored of him.  It’s always a good idea to go beyond the quote and determine how a particular person’s words will reflect on you, the site, or your post.

Useful Sites for Quotes by Topic and Individual

Try Writing Your Summary Last

Although summaries are often one of the first blocks or spaces that you fill out in online writing, many times you can go back and edit your summary. This gives you an opportunity to write, edit, and revise if necessary.

You may find that you write just the right sentence within the body of your post that helps you summarize. This is especially helpful if you have been struggling with writing more than your first paragraph in the summary.

Deliver on Your Summary

Did you fulfill the promise of the summary? Did you only entice your reader and then not provide more information? Whatever else you do, make sure that you delivered more information in your post than you did in your summary. 


Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing


Each of us writes from our own perspective, and sometimes, we relate to one approach better than another. Each person has a unique voice, and Two Drops of Ink is a place for you to share your wisdom, humor, insight, and knowledge. Consider educating, enchanting, or entertaining us with your words and a guest submission. 


  1. Thanks for this interesting and informative article Marilyn. I didn’t even know we could provide summaries of our blog posts.
    I usually spend so much time writing and editing my posts that I’m usually glad when I can finally press the publish button. Now I need to start thinking of a summary – oh dear!

  2. This is great material…food for thought. I have taught my young students about summaries and it is such a hard concept for them. One reason is usually teachers are telling them to create longer more interesting sentences with lots of details. To then teach them what concise means feels like the opposite to them. It is confusing. Teaching it doesn’t make it any easier for me to summarize either. It is work to craft a good summary!

  3. Hi Marilyn – Lots of good info here! I did not know that the excerpt could be a summary! My blog automatically copies the beginning sentence or sentences (depending on their length) into its’ excerpt portion. I am sure it can be modified though. I also never thought of using a quote as an excerpt/summary, so I appreciate that piece of helpful information as well! One of the things I like about writing – is there are always new things to learn. Thank you for sharing your knowledge here.

    • Hi, Mary Jo. Thanks for commenting.

      It is difficult to condense 1500 words to the essence of the post. I think early twitter helped me, too. Now, with click to tweets available, we don’t have to struggle as much.

      I think it’s a good exercise though to make our summaries as important as our writing.

  4. This is helpful. Thanks Marilyn. I’ve finally been working on this, at last truly finished with my book, and appreciate articles like yours, like this one. This is important stuff. I may be linking to this article in a coming post from my upcoming book blog/writer’s site. I will let you know, of course. 🙂

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