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: Is It Your First Paragraph?

My WordPress theme for my other blog, From Addict 2 Advocate, reprints the first paragraph from the post below the image on the landing page. The title, image, or brief opening remarks might be enough to get a reader interested. If your theme presents the first paragraph, don’t worry, you’ve got other options to attract readers, in summaries and excerpts.  


What Makes a Good Summary Or Excerpt? 


A good summary or excerpt has three essential characteristics: 

  1. Conciseness
  2. Accuracy
  3. Objectivity 

Even knowing this, many writers struggle with reducing their posts to a summary or excerpt, just as they have difficulty creating a short but meaningful tagline. As a result, they copy and past their first paragraph hoping this will attract readers when they get stuck condensing their 1500 word post into a 30-word summary. 


Excerpts Give You Extra Exposure


In WordPress, look for the excerpt box and create a concise summary, but also remember that this is an excellent space to include a call to action or a teaser for the information you have in the post. 

Improving your summary allows you 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 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 an excellent summary or overview of your post?

  1. Less than five sentences: Condensing the essence of the article
  2. Questions: who, what, why, when, where that readers ask
  3. An overview or impression of the entire article, not just the first paragraph
  4. Passion, knowledge, or enthusiasm for the subject
  5. 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 post? Essence is the spirit, heart, or your fundamental message. It does not have to be long to be informative; however, it needs to capture the article’s substance or main points in as few words as possible.
  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 post, 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 vocabulary and improve your writing quality. Within the summary, you must have described your post in a compelling voice.


Bad Summaries: What Not to Do


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…?” You have potentially offended your reader as they know a few things, or you may come across in a condescending or 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 lets 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…”, sets you up as the spokesperson for society or the world and we know you’re not that.  Whatever you are writing is merely your viewpoint or opinion. 


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 a particular person adds relevance to your writing, search for them. Know there are 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 if you haven’t highlighted the 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 an excellent 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 



Try Writing Your Summary Last


Although summaries are often one of the first blocks or spaces you fill out in online writing, you can usually go back and edit your summary, which allows you to write, edit, and revise if necessary. 

You may find that you write just the right sentence within your post’s content that helps you summarize, which 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 details in your post than you did in your summary. 



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  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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