An analytical summary of a book or a paper is the first step to writing an essay or one’s own research. A summary aims to demonstrate that you have read a text carefully, understood it, and are able to outline its key ideas and analyse the strong and weak sides of the author’s arguments. Aleksei Pleshkov, Director of the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities, and Olga Alieva, Associate Professor at the HSE School of Philosophy offer the following advice on how to summarize a paper and make your text reflect the essence of the research, which will be helpful for both you and your peers.
An analytical summary must reflect the main contents of a text and its structure. It should be written in clear language and be understandable for someone who hasn’t read the paper. Hence, it is important to avoid expressive descriptions (e.g., ‘wonderful/ horrible work’), clichés (‘people have been puzzling their heads over this problem since antiquity…’), and rhetorical questions. Remember that you are not writing a journalistic text.
The text was first published on Antibarbari HSE – the HSE Greek-Latin Club
If you are using abbreviations (S, S’, R1), it makes sense to add a key (S – main statement; S’ – auxiliary statement; R1 – first reason). Excessive formalization is unnecessary, but the summary should clearly demonstrate the author’s key statement, the reasons supporting it, and the structure of the paper. That’s why a summary is usually a short text. But don’t hesitate to add details that you believe would be useful in your future work. This can be done, for example, in the criticism part, for example, if you don’t agree with the statement or the suggested interpretation; on the contrary, you can reinforce the author’s argumentation with further reasoning or clarify the statement.
An analytical summary does not require proper formalization of footnotes and a list of references, but when you work on the summary, it is sometimes useful to check the literature cited by the author (this will help with understanding the intellectual context, the author’s ‘horizon of expectation’). In addition, it makes sense to write down the numbers of pages you are referring to: a summary is a benchmark you’ll be addressing in your further work, so you should make it as easy as possible for yourself to navigate it.
21st Century Enlightenment/ RSA Animate
Two comments. (1) Obviously, writing a good summary takes a lot of effort, so writing summaries for each paper or book you’ve read is impossible. Meanwhile, it makes sense to summarize the texts that are essential for your essay or independent research. (2) A summary does not replace and exclude re-reading. That’s why essential texts are ‘essential’: you can always find something new if you re-read it (‘trust, but verify’, which means verify yourself, too).
Finally, remember that if a paper seems obscure, if you can’t identify the thesis statement, and if the reasoning doesn’t seem systematic, it’s quite likely that the drawback is yours. At any rate, the summary is intended not to judge, but to understand. This means that your task is to present the paper from its strongest perspective that is ‘beneficial’ to its author, keeping in mind the so-called ‘principle of charity’.
The following simple steps can help in writing a summary.
1. First, read the text completely and try to formulate its key idea.
2. Re-read the text, highlighting the key sentence in each paragraph/chapter. Then, re-read all the highlighted sentences.
3. Start writing, putting the main idea, as you’ve understood it, in the first sentence. This sentence should include the author’s name and a short title of the work (with the year of publication in brackets).
4. Being guided by the highlighted sentences, restate the author’s reasons that support the main idea. Restate in your own words – don’t copy or translate. If you want to add a citation, don’t forget to put it in quotation marks. Add a mark if the reason is additional and is not related to the main idea. The resulting text should reflect the structure of the paper.
Obviously, the principle of charity doesn’t mean that you should agree with the author on everything, turn a blind eye to their mistakes or errors in argumentation. For that reason:
5. The last part of an analytical summary is criticism. In it, you are supposed to describe how well the author’s reasons support their thesis statement. If some of the reasons seem unconvincing, point those out. But don’t forget that criticism doesn’t equal fault-finding. Reasonable support may also include criticism. All your statements should be reasoned, even if they seem obvious to you.
Changing Education Paradigms/ RSA Animate
The critical part should be reasonable and non-emotional.
For example, you can:
Assess whether all the reasons make up a system and support the author’s thesis statement, whether there are hidden contradictions between different statements, and whether everything is reasoned;
Defend the position challenged by the author;
Support or develop the author’s statement with your own reasons;
Provide counter-evidence that challenges the author’s interpretation; this doesn’t necessarily need to refute the key idea;
Compare the advantages of different positions on the issue being considered;
Demonstrate that the author bases their argumentation on biases, and attack them;
Make conclusions from the author’s statements and evaluate their persuasiveness.
Don’t forget that your colleagues will use your summary, and their success also depends on how seriously you take the subject. Research is collective work.