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Has someone ever asked you to tell a story? It can be an intimidating process, especially if you’re in front of a group. People will complain if you leave out certain details. They’ll complain if you get it wrong. “No—that’s not what happened. Let me tell the story!”
The art of summarizing doesn’t always come naturally. Yet, it’s a skill each of us needs at some point. How can you write a summary in a way that will intrigue the reader or listener without leaving out key information?
A summary is simple on the surface: It’s a shortened and condensed version of a longer text or story. And it may just be the most important communication tool in your arsenal.
In our professional lives, we write summaries all the time. Police officers write situation reports. Researchers condense articles into abstracts. Job seekers create bios and elevator pitches.
But summaries go beyond our working lives. If anyone has ever asked you, “What happened?” you probably became an impromptu summarizer.
As such, it’s one of the most crucial skills you can learn.
Different Types of Summaries
Before you understand how to write a summary, you’ll have to realize that not all summaries are made alike. Depending on the point of the summary, you may have to take a different approach. Here are some of the most common summaries:
- An objective summary: What is an objective summary? It’s just like it sounds: the opposite of a subjective summary. You’re not offering an opinion; you’re recording the facts. A police officer filing a report is creating an objective summary of an investigation.
- A plot summary: Aim an objective summary on a film or book, and you’ve got the recipe for a plot summary. This is a blow-by-blow account of a story’s main turning points. In nonfiction, a book summary can include the key insights the reader will expect to find.
- A bio summary: Can you fit your entire lifetime into a few sentences? People do it on resumes all the time. A bio summary is a one or two sentence distillation of your experience and goals.
- An article summary: News service Axios routinely posts bullet points like “What Happened” and “Why It Matters” at the tops of its articles. Why? These article summaries cut out the fluff and provide readers with the key details they can expect to read.
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Even though the principles are the same, your summary style will differ depending on your goals. Consider that learning how to write a summary for a resume is different than writing a book report. Here are some key tips for summaries many of us are writing these days:
- How to write a LinkedIn summary: Create an objective summary of your resume first, then tell the story in the first person. Interject key insights you’ve learned along the way. Try to put yourself in a hiring manager’s position. If they hired a private detective to follow you around and then report on your best qualities, what would they call attention to?
- How to write a summary of an article: Start with an assessment of the basic facts and list them on top of each other. From here, your job is to pick out the key details, list them chronologically, and knit them together with unique sentences.
- How to write a resume summary: Here, you’ll have to stitch together two concepts: your goals and your experience. A resume summary explains both what you’ve already done and what you might bring to the next company that hires you. Keep it to two to three sentences maximum.
Now, let’s take a look at a few more tips to help you write a summary that doesn’t make people’s eyes glaze over.
Step #1: Pretend You’re Sending a Telegram
How long is a summary? How short is probably a better question. Aim for as short as possible for its context.
To accomplish that, give yourself a constraint: pretend you’re sending a telegram. With old telegrams, senders paid by the letter, so they were forced to summarize.
Using constraints can unlock all sorts of creative brevity. For example, there is an urban legend that Ernest Hemingway once accepted a challenge to write a six-word story and came up with: “For sale, baby shoes. Never worn.”
Step #2: Write Down a List of Key Details
The magic of the “For sale, baby shoes” story is in its selection of details. By isolating the choice of “baby shoes,” we can picture the rest of the story: the hopes and dreams of the people who bought those baby shoes.
Step #3: Tell a Miniature Story
You can think of a summary as a list of details. But you can also think of it as a mini-story of its own. Try to distill the key details into a formula: problem and resolution, for example. In creating a miniature story, you’ll help capture the experience—and not just the nuts and bolts—of the larger text.
Author James Clear sometimes writes handy book summaries for his readers. In his review of 10% Happier by Dan Harris, he constrains himself to just three sentences:
“Practicing meditation and mindfulness will make you at least 10 percent happier. Being mindful doesn’t change the problems in your life, but mindfulness does help you respond to your problems rather than react to them. Mindfulness helps you realize that striving for success is fine as long as you accept that the outcome is outside your control.”
It’s a great approach to books. But it also demonstrates how to summarize an article. Two essential elements are there: what and why.
- The what: “Practicing meditation and mindfulness.”
- The why: “Will make you at least 10 percent happier. . . . Mindfulness helps you realize that striving for success is fine as long as you accept that the outcome is outside your control.”
If you want more details than that, you’ll have to read the book. But doesn’t part of you feel like you already have? If so, you’ve experienced what a good summary can do to improve your communication skills.
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