Behind the Scenes at Bookcelerator: How do we read 35+ books a month? It’s all about the Summary!

Crafting a book summary is one of the most common writing tasks you might be asked to complete. Summaries serve several purposes: for the writer they serve as notes and memory-refreshers, for the reader they save time by sharing the most important concepts from the book while leaving out some of the details.

Writing a book summary means balancing those important concepts with omitting details where possible. This is the summary writer’s biggest challenge. Culling details from another author’s hard work is never easy, but making the decision of what stays and what goes is the summary writer’s most important job.

What follows are some basic suggestions for writing summaries of books. Following these suggestions should help make your summaries more effective, easier to produce, and plugged-into their purpose.

Breaking Down The Big Ideas

The first step in writing a book summary is understanding that you’ll need to break down the big ideas. Most non-fiction books have one really big idea (this is the book’s argument, or its thesis). The big idea is usually presented very early in the book. You might find it in the book’s introduction, and the thesis is surely stated in the book’s first chapter.

Many non-fiction books present their big idea through one or a series of stories or examples. Your job as a summary writer is to wade through all of that and cut to the chase. Instead of recounting those stories, your summary should only include the lessons learned from those stories.

That means your summary will lose a lot of the emotional impact of the original book. While this is a shame—and a good example of why we should always eventually read the original material—your summary has a different purpose than the original book. A summary’s reader doesn’t expect the frills or the style of the original material to appear in the summary.

Once your summary has explained the original book’s big idea, you can move into explaining the smaller ideas. These smaller ideas will almost always support the big idea in some way. As you go through the book’s chapters, unpack the ways each chapter contributes to the book’s overall thesis. In your summary, don’t be afraid to circle back and re-establish the connections between the chapters and the book’s thesis.

Fiction books might take a little longer for their big ideas to unfold. Most don’t give away the whole purpose of the story like the first paragraph of To Kill A Mockingbird does:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

The rest of To Kill A Mockingbird is the story of how Jem gets his arm broken, an event that actually happens in the novel’s last few pages.

Of course, To Kill A Mockingbird is REALLY about a whole collection of much bigger ideas. That’s what makes the book so great. But these ideas aren’t as obvious in the book’s first few pages or chapters.

Writing a summary of a non-fiction book can probably happen as you sit to read it the first time through. A work of fiction, though, requires you to complete the reading so you can see the bigger picture from a little bit of a distance. That probably means note-taking while you read a piece of fiction is in order, unless you plan to read the book a second time or have a great memory.

Pay particular attention to context clues. Chapter titles often point to their main ideas, and words or phrases that use different fonts are being stressed for a reason. These are easily identifiable big ideas that should appear in your summary.

Putting It Into Your Own Words

One aspect of a summary is that the summary writer places the original’s ideas in their own words. This accomplishes two things.

First, putting ideas into your own words cements the concepts in your mind. Have you ever gotten driving directions from someone, and immediately repeated the directions back to them? Repetition is one way we learn. That makes summary writing a great study tool.

Second, putting things into our own words keeps us out of trouble. Plagiarism is a big deal. Plagiarizing gets people fired, sued, and kicked out of school. Most educational and professional settings, especially those in the United States and in other Western traditions, consider plagiarism to be unethical.

Avoid plagiarism by writing in a new voice, using new organization and grammatical constructions. Don’t just find synonyms for everything.

Re-stating ideas in the context of a summary is not plagiarism. It’s an expectation of the genre, and since you’re being honest about where the ideas come from, you won’t get into trouble.

Summarizing gets tricky, though, when you absolutely can’t use different words. Some terms are too technical or specific, and some phrases are too important to the original material to put into different words.

When these instances happen, you can use quotation marks to show you’re using the specific language from the original. From the example of To Kill A Mockingbird, there’s just no way to avoid including “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” in any good summary. That’s ok. Just be obvious about where it comes from, and why you’ve chosen to include it.

Specific important phrases that are only a few words long probably don’t need quotation marks every time you use them in your summary. Be clear where the phrase comes from, especially the first time you use it.

Remember Your Purpose

The summary isn’t really a substitute for the original material. The summary is something different altogether, and while the ideas of a summary should accurately reflect the ideas from the original, you will never be able to capture its flair and style.

That’s all right. You aren’t expected to.

Make your summary clear and honest. Don’t evaluate or judge the original’s ideas (that’s a different kind of writing).

Follow these guidelines, and your summary will be a clear representation of the main points included in the original work.