Writing is not one task with a specific, unchanging set of rules. Consequently, it’s often counterproductive to classify writing as “good” or “bad” because doing so necessitates an oversimplified view of what writing is. Instead of aspiring to the title of “Good Writer,” I propose that each of us should strive to become a more effective writer.
Characteristics of effective writers
Effective writers know that there are many different types of writing, from proposals to poems, from diary entries to legal defenses. They realize that different types of writing have different requirements: the elements that make a good poem are not the same ones that make a good encyclopedia entry. Effective writers also know how to adapt their writing to suit their particular audience, genre, topic, context, and purpose.
The ability to adapt your writing for maximum effectiveness is an immensely useful skill. And learning how is easier than you might think. You’ll need to focus on two things:
- increasing your awareness of the differences between writing situations and
- gaining the tools to respond to a given writing situation.
Let’s practice these two components of effective writing using summary, an essential building block in many modes of writing.
Know the three essential characteristics of a summary
A good summary has three basic characteristics: conciseness, accuracy, and objectivity.
Conciseness: unlike paraphrase, summary condenses information. The degree of density can vary: while you can summarize a two-hundred page book in fifty words, you can also summarize a twenty-five-page article in five hundred words. Both are summaries because both condense the material, although one condenses its material much more than the other does.
If the writing task is being assigned to you – in a work or school setting, perhaps – you’ll likely have the summary’s length defined for you. If not, there are a couple of factors to consider when deciding how long the summary should be. What is the goal of your communication? If the goal is just to present a summary, then you can use whatever space you need.
If, however, the summary is only a piece of the puzzle, you will want to be careful not to overdo the length. For example, if you are writing a book review, only part of the review summarizes the book. The other, and arguably more important, part of the review is the evaluation. Your judgment about the book, what you thought of it and why, is what readers are primarily looking for when they read your review.
Accuracy: summaries should provide a clear and precise picture of the material, shorter length notwithstanding. In order to do this, you as the summary writer must understand the material thoroughly, and you must convey your understanding so that the reader gets an accurate picture as well.
This can be a lot harder than it sounds. As you know, there are many ways for you as the writer to put yourself in the reader’s shoes. If the writing is less than clear, the reader may misunderstand. But when you summarize a written piece, you’re a reader first. As a reader, you may misunderstand the writer’s point if the writer hasn’t made it clear.
Objectivity: summaries should only contain the original author’s viewpoint, not your own. You are reporting, not editorializing. Even a seemingly innocuous statement like “Smith helpfully points out that…” is subjective. You are not just presenting Smith’s point; you are also expressing your opinion that Smith’s point is helpful.
Becoming aware of distinctions like these will add power and purpose to your summary.
Underused summary writing tools: critical reading, methodical thinking
You must apply your critical reading and thinking faculties in order to construct an effective summary. The following paragraphs take you through the reading, thinking, and writing processes one at a time.
The first thing you must be able to do is get to know the material you are preparing to summarize; take time and care to become comfortable with it. Read and review it repeatedly, breaking down the material into sections. It is often helpful to summarize smaller sections as you go. These “mini-summaries” will aid your understanding as well as make the summary process less painful later on.
Second, you must prioritize the information and/or arguments contained in the piece. Think about the piece’s structure, and decide what the piece’s main point is, which statements are supporting points, and which are details.
Not all pieces are organized in the same way. For example, some pieces state their main points up front, while others bury them in the middle of the essay. As a summary writer, you are always working backwards: looking at the finished essay and trying to discern the argument’s basic outlines. After all, outlines are all you have room for.
After you have prioritized the information, you will decide what to include, and how much of it, based on how much space you have to construct the summary. You’ll always choose to include the main point. If you have space, you can present a sketch of the supporting points. If you have even more space, you may refer to a few salient details to exemplify the piece’s approach.
When you’re ready to write the summary, get the original out of your sight. Instead, use the notes and “mini-summaries” that you constructed during the reading step. This will make it easier to put the points into your own words and sentence structures, which is important when summarizing.
After you have finished drafting, check your summary against the original for accuracy. On a separate review, check each sentence for hints of subjectivity or judgment, and remove them where you find them.
The summary is a mainstay of informative and persuasive writing. Conquer it, and you’ll be well on your way toward “effective writer” status.
Go back to the full list of Writing Power articles.
Image courtesy of Chris (via Flikr)