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Writing Summaries and Outlines Study Guide (page 3)

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Outlines

A summary uses complete sentences to explain what a reading is about. But if the reading contains many important or interesting details, you might use an outline. An outline shows the main idea and supporting details in a list. Outlines can be used to take notes on fiction stories, but they are best for readings that contain lots of facts and information. Outlines usually are formatted like this one:

Surfing

  1. History
    1. Polynesian culture
    2. Captain Cook's travel notes
    3. Modern surfing
  2. Equipment
    1. Surfboards
      1. Longboards
      2. Funboards
      3. Shortboards
    2. Wetsuits
    3. Board wax

Note that the topic appears at the top; if you are taking notes from a book or article, include the author's name or the book title as well. This sample outline uses three levels to list the two main topics and several smaller details. The main ideas should be the first level in your outline. Usually the first level of the outline uses Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, V, and so on). The second level uses capital letters, and the third level uses regular Arabic numbers. These levels help you show how the details are related.

Outlines may include single words, short phrases, or complete sentences. Include as much information as you need. Taking detailed, organized notes can save you a lot of time in the long run!

When to Use Outlines

Outlines are best when you want to remember specific details from a reading. Remember that outlines show not only the ideas, but also the relationship between the ideas. Thus, when you take notes as an outline, you have to decide how to organize the details. This is much easier when you see how the author organized the ideas in the text. Suppose you are reading an article comparing wind power to solar power. Here are two possible ways to organize your outline:

  1. History
    1. Wind power
    2. Solar power
  2. Current use
    1. Wind power
    2. Solar power
  3. Future potential
    1. Wind power
    2. Solar power
  1. Wind power
    1. History
    2. Advantages
    3. Disadvantages
  2. Solar power
    1. History
    2. Advantages
    3. Disadvantages

The outline on the left is arranged point by point. The outline on the right is arranged in blocks. Even if the author uses one arrangement, you could still reorganize the ideas to fit a different pattern. But when you understand the structure of the article, you'll have a good idea of how to organize your notes.

Other Ways to Organize

An outline is one type of graphic organizer; it is a way to organize information using both illustration and words. The outline still uses a lot of words, but the way they are arranged adds to your understanding. A web-shaped cluster diagram is another type of graphic organizer. It shows a topic or character name in a central circle. Lines are drawn to smaller circles containing details related to the main topic or character. A cluster diagram helps you make connections between concepts and characters. A time line, showing a list of dates of events, is also a graphic organizer. A time line helps you organize information chronologically, or by time. You will probably use time lines in your history classes. When taking notes, use the organizer that will work best for the topic or content. You might need to experiment with more than one method to decide which will be most helpful.

Summary

Good readers take notes on what they read; notes help us to organize ideas, make connections, and remember the most important points. The content will probably determine what type of note-taking strategy you choose. Summaries briefly restate the story or main ideas in your own words, while outlines arrange the main ideas in a list.

SKILL BUILDING UNTIL NEXT TIME

  1. Write a brief summary (up to four sentences) of your favorite book. Try to summarize the main idea of the story, which might be a theme about love, courage, or friendship. If it seems tough to leave out all the character names and plot twists, look at some book reviews in the newspaper to see how they summarize long stories.
  2. Read a news or magazine article that interests you. Build an outline by writing down the main ideas of the article, and then add the supporting details. Don't be afraid to erase or reorganize!

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Writing Summaries and Outlines Practice Exercises

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