As promised and at long last, here is an overview of the major conventions of common academic subgenres. You will probably notice similarities and crossovers between the conventions of these sub-genres. Good! If you do, this means you are learning how to navigate genres. As an undergraduate student, much of the writing you do will be academic writing, but it won’t be exactly like the published academic writing (including journal articles, books, or even textbooks) associated with your field of study. It’s helpful to think of academic writing assignments for courses as pieces of, steps toward, or even simplified models of published academic writing. Expect to see more commonalities between your own academic writing and what experts in the field publish as you move into more advanced work in a particular discipline.
But before we get to the sub-genres of academic writing, there are conventional components of these sub-genres that you should get to know: summary writing, paraphrasing, and quoting. If you can manage to follow these conventions, you’ll be well on your way to being an effective academic writer.
Almost every sub-genre of academic writing includes summary writing. The process of summarizing a longer text involves moving “from big to small,” as a University of Victoria Centre for Academic Communication tutor beautifully puts it. Indeed, a summary is like a movie trailer or sports reel version of a longer work. When crafting summaries, writers distill and explain main ideas themselves, using their own phrasing and sentence structure but always citing the source for these ideas.
When Will I Summarize?
In most cases, there are two key goals for a summary:
- Inform readers who haven’t previously read the text you are summarizing its main ideas.
- Offer an accurate and fair overview of those main ideas.
Even so, you will see some variation in summary assignments:
Sometimes, you will be asked to summarize the main ideas of a complex article in a long paragraph (or even the main ideas of a book in a few pages).
Sometimes, you will be asked to write a very brief summary of a long text to help readers decide if it’s worth their time. (This is a common type of summary in the context of an annotated bibliography.)
Sometimes, you summarize to set up your own response to an argument by another writer. In this case, you probably want to make your summary as brief as possible without sacrificing accuracy to allow space for your own ideas.
And sometimes you need to summarize your own longer piece of work – that’s how abstracts for journal articles get written.
So, once you have a draft summary, make sure you fully understand what type of summary your finished product needs to be – and revise accordingly.
What Should I Avoid When Summarizing?
Because the job of a summary is to put another writer’s ideas into your own words – in the process, translating those ideas to meet the needs of your readers – it’s not appropriate or effective to replicate the original language or even sentence structure and overall organizational plan of the original.
When a writer takes sentences from the original document and substitutes synonyms for some words, changes the order of others, and maybe reworks a few phrases, this person isn’t creating a successful summary. Instead, this way of replicating features of the original text too closely is called patch-writing. Even when the source is cited, patch-writing is usually considered plagiarism because the writer is implying they reworked the original text more than they did. A thorough discussion of patchwriting is featured in this Merriam-Webster post.
The best way to avoid patch-writing is to follow the how-to instructions (below) while keeping in mind the purpose of your summary. If your aim is to give your reader an understanding of something you read, then you can see why patch-writing won’t get the job done. To avoid patch-writing, perhaps follow the advice given here.
When you summarize, you cannot rely on the language the author has used to develop his or her points, and you must find a way to give an overview of these points without your own sentences becoming too general. You must also make decisions about which concepts to leave in and which to omit, taking into consideration your purposes in summarizing and also your view of what is important in this text. Here are some methods for summarizing: First, prior to skimming, use some of the previewing techniques.
Include the title and identify the author in your first sentence.
The first sentence or two of your summary should contain the author’s thesis, or central concept, stated in your own words. This is the idea that runs through the entire text–the one you’d mention if someone asked you: “What is this piece/article about?” Unlike student essays, the main idea in a primary document or an academic article may not be stated in one location at the beginning. Instead, it may be gradually developed throughout the piece or it may become fully apparent only at the end.
When summarizing a longer article, try to see how the various stages in the explanation or argument are built up in groups of related paragraphs. Divide the article into sections if it isn’t done in the published form. Then, write a sentence or two to cover the key ideas in each section.
Omit ideas that are not really central to the text. Don’t feel that you must reproduce the author’s exact progression of thought. (On the other hand, be careful not to misrepresent ideas by omitting important aspects of the author’s discussion).
In general, omit minor details and specific examples. (In some texts, an extended example may be a key part of the argument, so you would want to mention it).
Avoid writing opinions or personal responses in your summaries (save these for active reading responses or tutorial discussions).
Be careful not to plagiarize the author’s words. If you do use even a few of the author’s words, they must appear in quotation marks. To avoid plagiarism, try writing the first draft of your summary without looking back at the original text.
We suggest paying close attention to number seven in the advice given above. This is your best bet not to patch-write, which can be construed as plagiarism. Nobody wants that to happen!
Convention Number Two: Paraphrasing
Interestingly, the word “paraphrase” is both a verb and a noun:
When we paraphrase (verb), we explain a concept ourselves. We use our words, our way, to restate an idea. Paraphrasing also occurs when we write a summary. We use our words, our way, moving from big to small, to distill the main points from a longer text to a short text, citing the source.
When we write a paraphrase (noun), we use our words, our way, moving from small to small, to restate an idea from an original sentence/sentences to our own sentence/sentences, citing the source.
To write a paraphrase, focus on the original short excerpt and take note of key ideas. Look away from the original text. Notice the similarities with summary writing? There, too, you need to use your notes to rewrite the original, changing the sentence structure, reordering ideas, and using your words to explain the idea. As with summary writing, integrate the information into your paragraph by introducing the idea, citing the source, and indicating how the paraphrased information fits with the key idea in your paragraph.
Convention Number Three: Quoting
We suggest using quotations sparingly, selecting to quote only when the original writer’s words are so unique and memorable that they can’t be paraphrased. Placing a relevant (yet brief) quotation in your introduction can pique your reader’s interest in the topic you are writing about. You also may want to include an authority’s words as evidence for your claim. Another reason to quote is to respond to those who may disagree with your ideas (naysayers) by quoting them first. Quotes can be powerful additions to your writing.
Here are a few grammatical considerations when quoting (that may save your grade):
- Copy the original words accurately, enclosing them in double quotation marks.
- If you need to omit words to smoothly integrate the quote into a sentence, use ellipses.
- If you wish to add words to integrate the quote seamlessly into a sentence, use square brackets.
- Always, always introduce the quotation and explain its significance: Why are you including this quote?
When Do I Use Direct Quotes and When Do I Paraphrase?
We strongly suggest limiting the number of quotes you use because you want to present your ideas in your own words. If you include too many quotations, your voice can be drowned out. In many disciplines, writers use quotations sparingly (like salt) to support their claims. A little bit of salt makes a dish more appealing, but too much salt makes it inedible. The same can be true with quotations. In fact, in some disciplines, writers almost never quote from original documents.
When writing from sources, you will routinely summarize, paraphrase, and quote, citing your sources every time you draw on others’ ideas. And where will you be summarizing, paraphrasing and quoting? In lots of different academic sub-genres: reports, blogs, forums, book reviews and (drum roll, please), essays.
- “Words We’re Watching: ‘Patchwriting’. Paraphrasing in a Cut-and-Paste World,” Merriam-Webster, accessed June 29, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/words-were-watching-patchwriting. ↵
- Leora Freedman, “Summarizing,” Writing Advice, University of Toronto, 2012, https://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/researching/summarize/. ↵