Writing Summaries and Outlines Study Guide

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Writing Summaries and Outlines Practice Exercises


Taking good notes is a valuable skill for both readers and writers. This lesson will introduce two useful ways to organize your reading notes. It will also help you decide when to use each method to create the most effective notes.

Can you remember every sentence you have read in this book so far? Of course not! When we read longer works such as books and articles, we usually remember only a few important points, or an idea that seemed really interesting. Two of the best ways to record these important ideas are summaries and outlines. A summary consists of a few sentences that briefly explain the main ideas. But if the reading has several interesting details, an outline may be the best way of organizing your notes. Summaries and outlines are useful tools for keeping track of the really significant information in a source.


When you recommend a great book or movie to a friend, you probably give your friend a short summary of the story. A summary is a retelling of the content in your own words. The summary should briefly paraphrase the main idea and supporting ideas or arguments. The main idea can usually be stated in one sentence, but a summary is often two or more sentences.

Read the following story carefully, and think about how you would summarize it.

Shiloh swung her leg back and clobbered a clump of dirt. It sailed over the sidewalk and shattered on the grass beyond. "Goal!" she sang. "One point for Shiloh Fanin!" As she continued the long walk home, she kicked at other dirt clumps and even a pile of dry leaves, though they didn't fly far. Fat tears welled in her brown eyes, but she wouldn't let them fall. For weeks she had been practicing her dribbling, longrange kicks, and passing. Every evening after dinner her father had brought out the scuffed soccer ball for an hour of running around the yard, and she had even outrun him a few times. But the hours of practice hadn't done her any good. Today's soccer team tryouts had been dismal. Nearly thirty girls had assembled on the field after school, and many of them were taller, stronger, and more experienced than Shiloh. After they had finished the tryouts, the coach explained that only fifteen girls could be chosen, and Shiloh wasn't surprised to be among those sent home. Now she would have to explain to her father that she wasn't good enough to play.

As she wandered down the last block to her house, something hit her in the back of the leg. A soccer ball! She spun around and saw Ashley, another girl who hadn't made the team. "Hey, Shiloh," Ashley called. "Would you like to sign up for the community soccer league with me? You were really good today, and I need a few more girls for our team."

Shiloh smiled. Maybe she could make her father proud after all.

Now look at two possible summaries. Which one seems more effective?

Shiloh didn't make the school soccer team. Then a friend asked her to join a different soccer team.

Shiloh was hoping to join the school soccer team. Despite hours of practice, she was not chosen for the team. She was upset and disappointed until a friend asked her to join a community soccer team.

The first summary is brief and concise. It tells who and what. If you were taking notes for yourself, this version might be sufficient to help you remember what the story was about. But the second version gives a bit more information—how Shiloh felt about these events and why the events were connected. If you wanted to summarize this story for a friend, these details would help explain the mood of the story and the relationship between the events. Thus, the second example is a more complete and effective summary of the story.

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