One of the important tasks of WR 111 is to teach students to craft strong, clear basic summaries of texts. Paraphrasing and outlining are of course related, though distinct, skills. The resources on this page may help instructors scaffold this assignment for students. For the first summary assignment in the course, spend additional time on the strategies for summarizing, and omit the response after the summary; the the later summary, include the response and focus more on paragraph coherence in the summary itself.

These materials may also be adapted for a quick, early-semester review of basic summary in WR 112, where summary may be used as a precursor to analysis in the context of the major papers, as well as an informal assessment of reading comprehension.


to be able to define summary and list its key characteristics and its purpose; to summarize a text of appropriate level; to refer to an author consistently throughout; to work on paragraph coherence and logical signaling; to balance correct use of verb tenses between the critical present tense and other tenses; to use MLA formatting in a formal paper.

Key Terms

summary; reading comprehension

Basic Summary Assignment (With or Without Response)

As always, a basic summary should be:

  1. Comprehensive – include the major points necessary to understand the essay
  2. Concise – stick to the main ideas and don’t include unnecessary details
  3. Accurate – make sure you understand the essay and are describing it correctly
  4. Objective – don’t include ideas or analysis of your own
  5. Original – use your own words and phrasing and avoid using quotes

    1. Write a basic summary of any essay that we have read together.
    2. Note that your summary should be as concise as you can make it without leaving out any important points. Your paper should not be more than one page long, and it should include 1-3 paragraphs (aim for 150-300 words).
    3. Remember to use the summary conventions we have been discussing, such as:
      • Introducing the essay with the full title and author’s name and referring to the author after that by his or her last name,
      • Using third person pronouns for the author and not bringing in your own personal opinions or ideas,
      • Keeping your verbs in the present tense when referring to things the author of the text says, does, writes, or thinks in the essay (and other tenses as needed for sequence of tenses and/or historical events),
    4. Respond (if applicable) to the text you have summarized: at the end of the summary you should include a brief (no more than one to two paragraphs) response to some element in the essay that caught your attention (rhetorical technique, theme, idea, etc.) and discuss what effect it had on you and why. This is your opportunity to offer your own opinion/analysis of the text.
    5. Reflect on your summary:
      • Does it refer to the author throughout the paragraph?
      • Does it show clear logic and paragraph coherence?
      • Where can you improve it, and why?
      • What strategies did you use while writing? Remember that summaries should typically not proceed sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph throughout the entire essay–how do you decide what details to include, though, and what to omit? Did you find or create topic sentences for paragraphs or sections, and eliminate repetitive information and unnecessary details?
    6. Discuss your summary with a partner.
    7. Format your paper in MLA style.

    Paraphrasing Exercise

    1. Practice paraphrasing when you are preparing to write a summary, but be sure you understand their differences.
    2. Note that unlike a summary, which aims at condensation, a paraphrase aims at clarification. A paraphrase restates the ideas in a passage by closely tracing the author’s line of reasoning, much as a translation does. Paraphrases are very useful for understanding difficult material. Unlike a summary, a paraphrase does not condense, but rather is about the same length or even a bit longer than the original. Like a summary, a paraphrase presents someone else’s ideas in your own words and sentence structure.
    3. Remember that paraphrase means taking a short passage from a source and rephrasing it so that it is in your own voice and fits into your piece of writing. A paraphrase contains all the information from the original passage, but puts the information largely in your own words. Paraphrases are usually the same length as the source text and are used when:
      • the words are not memorable enough to quote;
      • the ideas in the source need to be changed in some way to fit the ideas in your paper.
    4. Use the following steps when writing a paraphrase:
      • Put the passage into your own words and grammar. The best way to do this is to cover up the passage and rewrite the main ideas.
      • Reread the original passage and revise your paraphrase to be sure the meaning matches the original and that you are not using the author’s words or sentence structure.
    5. Check your paraphrase with this checklist:
      • Read the passage you are paraphrasing several times, looking up unfamiliar words.
      • Proceed sentence by sentence, translating ideas into your own words.
      • Change first person point of view to third person.
      • Read over your paraphrase (it should be easier to read than the original)
      • Check carefully to make sure you have not plagiarized. Plagiarism includes not only the use of an author’s exact words, but his or her sentence structure.

    Outlining Exercise and Reflections

    1. Use outline form to outline a text we have read together in class.
    2. Remember that the purpose of an outline of a text is to remind yourself of the text later on; it does not need to include every single detail of the text, but it will likely include more detail than a short basic summary. It does, however, need to show the connections (cause and effect, sequence, etc.) between different sections of the text you are summarizing.
    3. Reflect on your outline after you have written it. Consider the reading, planning, and writing process for your paper. Also consider in-class activities and discussions and how they may have contributed to your writing.
      • Outlining is very connected to your skills in summarizing. How is summary connected to outlining, and how might writing one help you write the other more effectively?
      • What new difficulties or obstacles did you encounter throughout the process of completing this assignment which you do not encounter when you summarize?
      • How did you work to overcome those obstacles and were you successful? Or do you still have some lingering confusion? Explain.
      • What are your goals for your next writing assignment in this class? What planning/writing/language skills do you hope to focus on and improve next, and how are those connected to your work on the outline?