Words on a Page Writings about writing

Learning to write tightly by summarizing

A man writing on a small pad

When blogging or presenting about writing, and when coaching other writers, I continually hammer home the point that we all need to learn to write tightly. I hammer that point home so much that people get sick of hearing it.

I stand by that opinion. Writing tightly is an essential skill for any writer. Why? You might need to write to a specific word count. Or, you might only have a small space in which to write. In either case, you need to boil your writing down to its essentials.

One very effective way to learn how to write tightly is by practicing writing summaries of book chapters, articles, blog posts, or news items.

Here’s a look at how to do that.

Why learn to summarize?

Writing summaries is a great exercise that helps you focus:

  • What you need to cover in what you’re writing
  • How to choose the right words and the right level of information to use

The goal of writing a summary is to take the most important information from the source material and encapsulate it in a paragraph or two or three. Those paragraphs need to be short, but they should also include some detail.

How to do it

Start off with something short — for example, a 600- or 800-word article or blog post. As you become more comfortable writing summaries, start working with longer articles or even chapters of books.

The first thing to do is read through your material slowly and thoroughly. As you read, note that key points. Do that on paper on in text file. You don’t need to write full sentences. Sentence fragments or bullet points are more more than enough.

Then, read it again. This time, pull out more detail. That can be a quote or two that stand out or a short passage that supports the key points you identified.

Next, start writing. Focus on explaining the key points, and incorporate any information that support those points. Remember, though, not to go into too much detail. The idea is to give readers enough information to get the general idea. To do that, aim for three or four short sentences per paragraph.

Finally, take a break then edit the summary. You’ll see places where you can further cut down sentences or where you can remove detail. You’ll see opportunities to combine sentences into a shorter, but more cohesive whole.

An example

As a Community Moderator at Opensource.com, I regularly summarize news stories for roundup posts. Here’s an example of a summary that was part of one of those roundup posts:

Open data to rebuild Nepal

Nepal has a long way to go before it recovers from the devastating earthquake that hit two weeks ago. But once the country is on the road to recovery, it will have some help rebuilding from open source software called Arches.

Arches was developed by the World Monuments Fund and the Getty Conservation Institute to “to protect historic architecture and art in war torn countries.” The software “provides collaborative tools to document and analyze the ‘before’ data for a damaged site.” From there, experts can add other information (like diagrams, plans, or aerial photos) to the system. Using that data, experts can quickly assess which buildings and sites need the most work immediately. From there, they can “put together a prioritized plan for restoration efforts.”

The summary is short, but contains the key points of the original article. It also incorporates a few quotes from the article to expand on those details.

Practice, practice, practice

Writing a good summary takes just that: regular practice. Take 10 or 20 minutes a day to practice writing summaries.

Think about how you can apply what you’re learning while crafting summaries to your other writing. Think about the length of sentences that you write and the words that you use. Put what you’ve learned into practice with your own blog posts or articles that you’re writing.

Thoughts? Let's start a conversation on Twitter.