How to Write a Summary

Is it possible to reduce a 50,000- to 100,000-word book to a single page or paragraph of pure power — enough to capture what truly matters to you?

I am currently obsessed with this question.

The key thing to ask about any information you consume is: What’s most important? The answer is a summary.

Most of what I read and hear disappears without a trace in memory unless I take the time to write a summary. This skill is essential to learning just about anything.

I want to get way better at summarizing. It helps me a lot to think in terms of:

  • Unstructured summaries
  • Pragmatic summaries
  • Progressive summaries

Unstructured summaries

Peter Elbow, author of Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process suggests a simple (though not always easy) way to summarize:

If you want to digest and remember what you are reading, try writing about it instead of taking notes. Stop periodically — at the end of each chapter or when something important strikes you — and simply write about what you have read and your reactions to it. This procedure may make you nervous at first because you can’t ‘cover’ as many points or make something as neatly organized as when you take notes. But you will remember more. Perfectly organized notes that cover everything are beautiful, but they live on paper, not in your mind.

Though Peter refers to summarizing reading, his idea applies to summarizing anything — e.g., presentations, podcasts, videos, meetings, and conversations.

This is the kind of summary I’m most likely to write — especially when pressed for time. I end up expressing ideas in my own words, too, which helps me to understand and remember the content.

Of course, you can always revise your unstructured summary. You can also check its accuracy by comparing it to the source. (This is key to the Fenyman technique.)

Pragmatic summaries

What to do you want to take away from an article, book, conversation, or presentation?

For years I assumed that the only answer to that question is a complete summary — all the possible take aways from a source.

However, some people are not interested in completeness. They want usefulness — ideas that make an immediate difference in how they think and behave. If this amounts to only a fraction of the source content, no problem.

For example, you can summarize to capture only:

  • Ideas that are new and surprising to you (as in book notes by Derek Sivers)
  • A simple checklist of things to do, minus all the explanations and supporting information (another idea from Derek)
  • An even shorter list of “marching orders” — three new habits (hat tip to Seth Godin)
  • The one idea or suggested behavior change that would have the most positive impact on your life right now.

Remember that you can return to any source in the future to create a new list of take aways.

Progressive summaries

Progressive summarization is the brain child of Tiago Forte, author of Building a Second Brain. This method is geared to taking notes on digital, text-based sources.

There are five stages:

  1. Capture the key excerpts from a source.
  2. Boldface the most important excerpts.
  3. Highlight the most important passages that you boldfaced.
  4. Based on the previous steps, write a summary in your own words at the top of your note.
  5. Use your summaries — along with your own ideas — to produce articles, books, presentations, courses, products, and other creative projects.

For examples, see Tiago’s series on progressive summarization.

Notice how this method contrasts with the previous two. Progressive summarization is the most structured and complete. It might be useful for sources that you want to thoroughly absorb and apply.

Look for the transformation

I agree with Ariel Curry and Liz Morrow: “All books are about transformation”:

  • Fiction describes a character’s efforts to resolve a complication — a struggle that permanently changes the character.
  • Memoirs offer first-person, nonfiction stories of personal change.
  • Prescriptive nonfiction (self-help and business-related) holds out the promise of change to the reader and explains how to achieve it.

This suggests a strategy for writing any kind of summary: Look for the transformation.

For example, here’s my transformation summary of a business book — Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Productivity by David Allen:

We feel overwhelmed and untrustworthy when we fail to clarify our commitments and try to hold them all in our head. The solution is to put all that unprocessed “stuff” in writing, translate it into clear lists of outcomes and actions, and update those lists weekly. The result is relaxed engagement with life, a clear head, and alignment with our life purpose.

This is an unstructured summary. For a deeper dive into the content, I might follow up with a pragmatic or progressive summary .

The key in any case is to play with summaries. They are for intellectual adventure and lifelong learning. Share your summaries online, and don’t feel obligated to summarize everything. We summarizers just want to have fun.

Note: Artificial intelligence (AI) software can absorb massive amounts of text and spit out summaries. But depending on technology is like hiring someone else to go to the gym for you — foregoing the mental exercise of writing your own summaries.  

Like Shane Parrish says: Even with AI, we still need to write.

Links to learn more

Merlin Mann’s Wisdom Project is the most ambitious summary project I’ve seen. He attempts to distill high-level insights into a bulleted list of aphorisms.

For progressive summarization on steroids, see The Ultimate Guide To Summarizing Books: How To Distill Ideas To Accelerate Your Learning by Tiago Forte.

Elizabeth Butler offers similar ideas for How to take notes on a book.

Some people like templates for book summaries. See this example from Michael Hyatt.

Brian Johnson’s Philosophers Notes prove that summaries can be fun to read.

I like Cedric Chin’s post about three kinds of non-fiction books, including those can be summarized in one sentence.

Josh Kaufman’s book notes are sophisticated “top 10” lists.

Francis Miller thinks deeply and well about summaries. Start with his paper on multi-level summaries for nonfiction books.

Summarizing fiction poses unique challenges. See Jane Friedman on how to write a synopsis for a novel. Also see how scriptwriters summarize their projects with loglines and beat sheets.