Writing Summaries and Outlines Study Guide (page 2)

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Be Selective

Because a short summary cannot include every detail, you will have to decide which information is most important. Sometimes the supporting ideas can be grouped together. For example, an article may include several dates or names of people and places. Not all these names and dates have to appear in your summary. As you read this newspaper excerpt, underline the most important information.

On January 3, Swiss native Jens Kipper became the first person to swim across Lake Delgado. Kipper practiced for more than eight months before attempting the 3,250-meter swim across the chilly mountain lake. A special wetsuit allowed him to retain body temperature, and a medical crew closely followed him in a boat in case of any mishap. He completed the crossing in just over five hours. Kipper trained in Lake Superior, one of the Great Lakes bordering northern Wisconsin and Michigan, and claimed that the weather conditions there helped him to prepare for Lake Delgado. Several people have attempted the Lake Delgado crossing before; Seamus Rich, of Ireland, made it two-thirds of the way across the lake in 2006 before high waves forced him to quit, and Frenchman Jacques Isther made several unsuccessful attempts in the late 1900s.

Unlike the article about the history of bicycles you read in Section 1, most of the names and dates in this article are not essential details. You can summarize these details in one general statement. Your summary might look like this:

Jens Kipper recently became the first person to swim across Lake Delgado. He trained for months and wore a special wetsuit. Several other people had previously attempted this crossing but failed.

The main idea of the article is Kipper's record. The article supports this main idea with details about his training, his equipment, and other swimmers who have tried the task before. If you tried to record all of these details in your summary, it might end up as long as the original article! Keep in mind that a summary provides a very brief version of the content, and some details will have to be left out.

When to Use Summaries

You probably summarize all the time—when you tell a friend about an argument with your mother, for example, or when you recommend a favorite comic book or television show. When you need to take notes on a reading, ask yourself, "What is this reading about?" This will help you focus on the main idea rather than the events or supporting details. A summary is usually the best way to record the main idea of a fiction story. The four stages of a plot, which you discovered in Lesson 6, might be tough to arrange in outline form. A summary might also be the easiest method for taking notes on a nonfiction essay or article, especially if you only need to remember the main ideas.

The type of notes you take will depend on what type of notes will be the most useful to you. Let's look once more at the story of St. Louis's Gateway Arch:

The Gateway Arch

The skyline of St. Louis, Missouri, is fairly unremarkable, with one huge exception—the Gateway Arch, which stands on the bank of the Mississippi. Part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the Arch is an amazing structure built to honor St. Louis's role as the gateway to the West.

In 1947 a group of interested citizens known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association held a nationwide competition to select a design for a new monument that would celebrate the growth of the United States. Other U.S. monuments are spires, statues, or imposing buildings, but the winner of this contest was a plan for a completely different type of structure. The man who submitted the winning design, Eero Saarinen, later became a famous architect. In designing the Arch, Saarinen wanted to leave a monument that would have enduring impact.

The Gateway Arch is a masterpiece of engineering, a monument even taller than the Great Pyramid in Egypt. In its own way, the Arch is at least as majestic as the Great Pyramid. The Gateway is shaped as an inverted catenary curve, the same shape that a heavy chain will form if suspended between two points. Covered with a sleek skin of stainless steel, the Arch often reflects dazzling bursts of sunlight. In a beautiful display of symmetry, the height of the arch is the same as the distance between the legs at ground level.

If you are reading this passage just to get the main idea, you'll want to know what the Arch is, where it is located, and why it is important. You would include only the most important details that you want to remember. Your summary might look like this:

The Gateway Arch is a remarkable monument on the bank of the Mississippi River in St. Louis. The stainless steel Arch was designed by Eero Saarinen in the 1940s to honor St. Louis as the gateway to the West.

But suppose you were writing an essay comparing the Arch to another monument. The names, dates, and other details about the Arch would be important to remember, so you could use an outline instead.

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