Writing summaries

April 1, 2006 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, web journalism.


The summary has developed into one of the major forms of writing of the Web. A concise, well-written summary allows the reader to gain information and understanding that is found more deeply in the site. Summaries are commonly located on the front page or the section front pages of a site, but they may also be located on the article page itself.

Some news web sites use the first paragraph of an article as the summary, but even with inverted pyramid news stories, this is rarely a good idea. A summary is a shorter version of the entire story and needs to give the reader a broad view of the story. Using the first paragraph as a summary can also be irritatingly repetitive for the reader who will likely expect something different if he or she goes to the article page. Finally, using the first paragraph as a summary shows that the news organization does not take its Web site seriously enough to create original content for it.

Summaries fall into three general categories: informational, analytical, and provocative.



informationalInformational summaries simply try to give readers an overview of a longer story. A summary can be as long as two or three sentences, so there is the opportunity for the writer to give the readers more information than normally found in a lead paragraph of an inverted pyramid news story. The summary does not have to isolate or emphasize the most important information about a story, as a lead paragraph for an inverted pyramid news story would. Rather, it can deal more generally with all of the information a story may contain. An example of an information summary follows:


Fighting Wasps lose to Dartford, 65-62

The Fighting Wasps stayed close through the entire game on Saturday night, but in the end the Dartford Dogs proved too much for the Pearl College basketballers. The loss puts the Wasps’ tournament seed in doubt just a week before the end of the season.


The informational summary is a staightforward account of the information in the story. It serves simply as a layer of information between the headline and the full article that will inform the reader and help him or her decide to read the full artile.




analyticalAnalytical summaries give the reader some interpretation of the information in the story. They emphasize the ”how” or “why” of a story, rather than the “who,” “what,” “when,” or “where.” The writer of an analytical summary must be thoroughly familiar with the story itself and must have a good understanding of the general topic. For example:


Fighting Wasps lose to Dartford, 65-62

The Fighting Wasps lost to Dartford Saturday night, but not because the Dogs proved they were the better team during the bulk of the game. Instead, it came down to free throws in the final three minutes. The Dogs hit theirs, and the Wasps didn’t.


An analytical summary attempts to explain the story or something about the story to the reader. The writer of the analytical summary may have to reach down into the story to find this explanation and may have to draw on a personal knowledge of the story to make some interpretation of it.


This analysis can be done with a point of view, but the writer should be sophisticated enough to the the information, rather than the attitude, do the talking.




provocativeProvocative summaries try to peek the interest of the reader not only by presenting information about the story but also by expressing some opinion or displaying some attitude. The writer may use humor, sarcasm, irony or some other device to get the reader thinking about the information. The point of doing that is to entertain the reader and induce him or her to read the story. Many non-news, magazine web sites, such as Slate and Salon, use provocative summaries to increase readership of articles.


Fighting Wasps lose to Dartford, 65-62

Chances are Coach Lou Wackman will have his Fighting Wasps spend some quality time at the free throw line during practice this week. If he had done that last week, the outcome of Saturday night’s game might have been different.


A provocative summary allows the write to display both a voice and an understanding about the story. The interpretation the writer makes in a summary may not be shared by the sources quoted in the story or by the readers themselves, but many news organizations are ok with that on their web sites.


Writing summaries


Writing a good summary — no matter what the type — is not an easy task. Above everything else, a summary must be an accurate presentation of the information in the article; it should also demonstrate that the writer has an understanding of that information.


To gain such an understanding, the summary writer must read the article thoroughly and clear up anything that he or she may not understand about it. The writer is looking to simplify what may be complex or complicated about the information.


The rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation and AP style apply to the summary.


Summaries are often written under a short deadline. Once a story is done, the web site editor may want to post it as quickly as possible, and a summary must be hammered out immediately. A summary writer has to be confident in the understanding of the material and the ability to use the language.




Individual web sites will formulate their requirements and styles for summaries. Generally, summaries have been growing shorter. Where once a writer had two or three sentences to work with, the writer may now have only one sentence.


The following are some examples of summaries taken from some web site of newspapers in California. The represent some of the different approaches that these organizations take to writing summaries.



Los Angeles Times


LATimesBy using the present tense, the Times treats summaries are long subheads that try to give the reader that extra layer of information before getting into the story. Comare the summary to the lead paragraph.


As the country insists its nuclear program is peaceful, ElBaradei believes that threatening sanctions could cause the situation to unravel.

Lead paragraph
BERLIN — United Nations atomic energy chief Mohamed ElBaradei urged the international community Thursday to steer away from threats of sanctions against Iran, saying the country’s nuclear program was not “an imminent threat” and that the time had come to “lower the pitch” of debate.



Orange County Register


OCRegisterThe Register writes a summary that is quite different from the lead paragraph. In this case, the lead takes on a features tone, but the summary in one straightforward sentence.


The unexpectedly cold weather gets the blame for delays in a project to improve El Toro Road.

Lead (and second paragraph)
LAKE FOREST – Orange cones, open trenches and lane closures.
Motorists who use El Toro Road say they’re frustrated. The city had planned to complete the $32 million El Toro Road improvement project by the end of last year, but delays have pushed the work back.



San Francisco Chronicle


SFChronicleThe Chronicle, at its web site SFGate, also has a summary that reads like a subhead. It is a longer, abstracted sentence — much like those found in the Los Angeles Times above.


Officials to investigate why technicians risked working on system’s computers during rush hour.

BART officials promised Thursday to thoroughly investigate why technicians risked working on computers that control trains while the transit system was running, work that crashed BART’s main computer, stalled 50 to 60 trains, and stranded 35,000 passengers for more than an hour at the peak of the Wednesday evening commute.

Note: BART is Bay Area Rapid Transit



San Jose Mercury News


SJMercuryNewsThe Mercury News lets its lead paragraphs do double duty by using them as summaries for the stories its displays on the home page of the web site.


As on Opening Day in baseball after spring training, the candidates for mayor of San Jose left the practice games behind and competed for real in a formal debate.

Same at the summary)



Contra Costa Times


CCTimesThis example from the Contra Costa Times is a good example of an analytic summary. The summary writer has gone beyond the lead to give some explanation of the story.


Computer-system crash delays come at a time when ridership is up, but if problems persist, commuters may leave.

Computer software updates that shut down the four-county BART system three days in a row this week and left passengers stranded for hours were supposed to be performed on the weekends, not during rush-hour, officials said.




(This article was originally adapted from Writing for the Mass Media, 5th ed. It was updated and posted on March 31, 2006)


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