Scheme for Understanding and Writing Summaries

Scheme for Understanding and Writing Summaries
By David K. Farkas
Intercom August 2020
Summary writing may at first seem a straightforward task requiring no more than basic textbook knowledge and an acquaintance with familiar models. In fact, summaries are complex and vary along many dimensions. They are written to fulfill multiple purposes and to meet diverse constraints.
Because summary writing is a complex task, technical communicators should be able to draw upon a comprehensive understanding of summaries and a wide range of design strategies when they plan and write a summary. This scheme applies across genres to summaries of all kinds, from research article abstracts, to the longer executive summaries that precede reports, proposals, business plans, and other organizational and business documents, to the brief summaries that appear before articles in news magazines, both in print and on the Web. These and other before-the-body summaries are separate components that are visually bounded from the body of the text through such means as box borders, a distinctive font, and extra spacing. But the scheme applies as well to the reviews that, especially in instructional documents, are visually bounded components that follow the body of the text.
Furthermore, the scheme applies to the unbounded summaries we embed within the body of a document: Unbounded summaries are regularly embedded within the introduction of a document, where they preview the main ideas, and they are often embedded within the conclusion of a document, where they review the main ideas. Indeed, unbounded summaries can be embedded anywhere in the body of the text, and they can either summarize some or all of the preceding content (signaled by such phrases as “Summing up what has been said so far”) or preview some or all of the upcoming content.
Here is a capsule presentation of the scheme:
1. Purpose: What is the purpose or purposes of the summary?
1. Specification constraint: Must the summary be written according to a gatekeeper’s specification, or is it unspecified?
1. Reduction: What is the ratio, in word count or by some other measure, of the summary to the summarized text? How was the reduction accomplished?
1. Phrasing: Is the summary written with informative or descriptive phrasing or a mixture of both?
1. Proportion and Exclusion: Is each part of the summarized text reduced by the same amount? Is any important content excluded from the summary? What are the reasons for improportion or exclusion?
1. Structure: How is the summary organized in relation to the text? How closely does the sequence of ideas in the summary map the sequence in the text?
1. Placement: Is there a single summary that appears before the body of the text (the default), a review that appears after the body of the text, or multiple summaries distributed within the body of the text or in the margins? Is the summary a free-standing module that excludes references to the text?
1. Addition: Is the content of a before-the-body summary strictly (miniature) of the full text, summaries very often differ from the full text along numerous dimensions. Indeed, present-day summaries appear to be increasingly less microcosmic.

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