Critical Summary

How to Write a Critical Summary

The Critical Summary is an exercise in rewriting, completely in one’s own words, the original text, preserving the essence of the information that it conveys, while greatly condensing it. The technique of the Critical Summary is difficult to master, but it is nevertheless one of most useful for the student because it teaches a number of fundamental skills applicable to any field, academic or professional, in which texts need to be interpreted in a systematic, effective and rigorous manner.

• Comprehension: before being able to summarize a text, a student must thoroughly understand it.
• Analysis: to summarize, it is necessary to extract the principal ideas.
• Synthesis: for accurate synopsis, it is necessary to distinguish the essential from the secondary and superfluous, and to express the essential ideas in a concise way without denaturing their meaning.
• Sense of scale: a good Critical Summary accurately reflects the importance of the various elements of the text of origin.
• Organization and the articulation: a good Critical Summary must show in a very clear and very effective way – often more than the original text – how the ideas or the arguments are connected.

Student often think they can bluff their way through an exercise like this by finding and reproducing what they think are “key sentences,” without spending time actually reading and analyzing the text. Your teacher will immediately recognize this approach, and give you the grade you deserve.

Basic strategies

1. Before beginning the Critical Summary, be sure to understand the text well.

  • Look up all the unfamiliar words: if you do not understand the text, your Critical Summary will be incomprehensible, or at least incoherent.
  • As you read, I recommend writing in the margins of the text TITLES that encapsulate the argument of a paragraph or set of paragraphs:
  • The Critical Summary is thus initially a systematic exercise of reading.

2. Diagram the text.

  • Every text contains a certain number of principal ideas, which are presented and developed in sections that you can mark off with a pencil or highlighter. Sometimes, especially in a very short or very dense text, each paragraph can correspond to a new idea. Most of the time, however, the same idea is developed, over the course of several paragraphs, using examples, explanations, precise details, reformulations, etc.
  • It is useful to surround or underline…
    • adverbs, adverbial phrases : however, to tell the truth, in fact, etc.
    • coordinating conjunctions and subordinate conjunctions: but, because, therefore, even if, moreover, etc.
  • Underline all key terms, especially those that belong to the particular field of study: for example, you might, in a text on psychology, underline all the scientific and technical terms that are introduced and discussed. Especially of interest are any words coined in the article.
  • Your aim is to reconstitute the structure of the original text – a task that will follow immediately after the reading, and will precede the drafting of the Critical Summary.
  • An excellent strategy is to compose an outline or schematic diagram (which will later be used as reference), while indicating with numbers, lines, arrows, etc relations between various the elements of which the text is made up.

3. Identify and reformulate the principal ideas.

  • Every section that you’ve identified above corresponds to an idea (a concept, an argument, a proposal) that can be formulated in a sentence.
  • You must do more than simply extract from the text sentences that express such and such an idea. You must produce your own sentences. The Critical Summary is also a rewriting exercise.
  • List these ideas in a hierarchical outline. In your outline, you’ll also want to include some secondary elements, like concise examples, corollaries, which might be incorporated into the final Critical Summary to meet the final word count requirement.
  • After having thus reformulated the "skeleton" of the text, skim the original text again to check that you retained all the principal ideas. Be sure that the ideas that make up this skeleton are, indeed, the principal ones.

4. Organize the principle ideas.

  • If you’re lucky, the author of the text expounds his or her ideas in a careful, logical manner. This rarely happens. Even in the best of cases, the Critical Summary may need to be reorganized for the ideas to be presented in an effective way, i.e. without repetitions.
  • Since there is a significant reduction in the length of the text, you will need to effectively and clearly use transition words (“accordingly, as a consequence, therefore, equally importantly”). For a discussion of how to use effectively transition words, see the UNC Writing Center’s Writing Effective Transitions: (

5. Respect the proportions of the original

  • When reading the text, try to allot a percentage to each section, and maintain this percentage in the Critical Summary. This will help you to avoid omitting any of the sections.
  • Do not, however, create a simple reduction, paragraph by paragraph, of the original text. Certain passages that do not include essential points (examples and references to other works in particular) will not be summarized.

6. Avoid rhetorical questions in the text. Change all questions to declarative sentences.

7. Carefully limit quotations and the loans.

  • Even if the author perfectly summarized his or her own ideas in condensed formulas you must still synthesize and rewrite the text. Borrowing certain key words, even certain expressions, is unavoidable, but do not try to avoid the point of this exercise by simply quoting whole propositions or sentences from the original.
  • Moreover, out of their context, fragments of the original pose problems of syntax, style, or logic when inserted into a sentence different from the original.
  • Unless you are absolutely certain that a fragment will function in the same way in a new context, it is to better reformulate the idea than to risk the inconsistency. This is particularly true when the direction of a fragment depends on an internal reference that does not appear in the Critical Summary.

8. It is unnecessary to specify that the ideas are those of the author.

  • What appears in a Critical Summary is, ipso facto and implicitly, ascribable to the author of the original text. Your own voice must be entirely erased. Avoid all personal comment or opinion, and instead reflect as well as possible what the author said.

How Are your Critical Summaries graded?

Each summary is equally weighted in your final grade. You will receive a grade between 3-15. For each of the following criteria, you will receive 1-5 points: 5=Exemplary, 4=Good, 3=Fair, 2=Poor, 1=Fail.

  1. Ideas. Carefully limit quotations and the loans. Identify and reformulate the principal ideas. It is clear that the student has accurately distinguished between the principle and subordinate ideas in the text and conveyed the most important and necessary message of the text.
  2. Argument. Organize the principal ideas. Respect the proportions of the original. The Summary is well organized and accurately reflects the importance of the various elements (scale). Importantly, the student has shown how the ideas or the arguments are connected—there is no "listing" or "bulleting."
  3. Craft. The Summary is well written with no grammatical or stylistic problems and the student has carefully adhered to the stated directions.

Paper grade: 14-15=A (100/94%), 13=A- (91%), 12=B (85%), 11=B- (81%), 9=C (75%), 8=C- (71%), 7=D (65%)

Here's an example of a pretty good Critical Summary. It's on an article you haven't read, but it's useful nonetheless.

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