Writing Brief Summaries of Secondary Sources


In reading secondary-source materials, you easily can become lost in details that distract from the document’s global claim. Therefore, as you read, focus your attention on the basic tenets of the arguments that the author advances.


When you first encounter a book, your inclination might be toward reading linearly—to begin reading on page one and continue until the end. That strategy, although noble, often will cause you to lose sight of the author’s primary argument because you will be processing every word of the text. Instead, “survey” the book. Consider employing some of the following tactics in order to maximize your reading effectiveness.


Survey the Text 

Begin by reading the dust cover. How does the publisher characterize the work? How does the publisher suggest it fits with existing literature on the subject? Does the cover feature a biographical sketch of the author? What is his or her background? Does the author include footnotes or a bibliography? What sources does he or she employ in the study? Familiarizing yourself with those few items will prepare you to extract the larger ideas of the text later.

Explore how the book is organized. Study the table of contents and peruse the text of the book. Do several smaller subsections comprise each chapter? Do the chapters feature illustrations, charts, or maps? Consider what those divisions within the text indicate about the author’s thinking and what he or she hopes to emphasize to the reader.

Very often, just from surveying the text, you can ascertain whether it will be germane to your topic. 

Identify the Argument 

Next, identify the tenets of the author’s argument. What is the primary claim or thesis he or she advances? What reasons does the author provide to explain the thesis? What evidence does he or she marshal in support of the thesis?

Use caution not to become consumed in the details of the text. (That can come later.) In order to focus on the basis of the author’s argument, outline the main ideas you identify. 



Your brief summary should include the following items: 

  • What is the subject of the text? 
  • What is the central question the author seeks to answer?
  • What is the author’s response to the question? (That is, what is the author’s claim or thesis?)
  • How does the author develop and support his or her thesis? (That is, what reasons and evidence does the author provide?)


Maintaining a collection of brief summaries from your readings will lend continuity of focus throughout your readings on a project. As always, find the approaches that are most beneficial for your own research and writing habits.