“If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter”
This famous proverb, variously attributed to Mark Twain, Pascal and Churchill, expresses a truth well understood by the summary writer: producing a short piece of text which clearly encapsulates complex or lengthy ideas takes a great deal of expertise and careful planning.
Before you write, begin with a list of questions...
How informed are your readers?
How much technical jargon needs explanation?
How much time do they have?
How many other similar reports will they read?
1. Who is your audience?
Think about the length and depth of the report. You may be looking for a one-page preface: some teaser statements, a few bullet points and a couple of tantalizing quotes, pulling in your reader so that they engage with the fuller piece. Another report may require more substance, with clear headings, greater detail, perhaps key figures or statistics.
Are you selling an idea?
Are you posing a complex theoretical question?
Are there multiple aspects to your argument?
Is there a call to action?
2. What is the tone of your report?
In a strong summary, the reader can easily identify key themes and implications. Aim to match the frequency of the longer piece: energetic or considered, ambitious or reserved. A report delivering a positive finding should have a positive summary; one containing challenges and future action needs a summary that’s enquiring, active and compelling. Don’t add your own synthesis – you’re aiming for perfect representation, not a mini-editorial of the original article.
What’s a proportionate level of detail to include?
Are you obscuring the USP by including too much background?
Have you understood the most important aspects of the proposal?
How can you articulate these key points simply?
3. What’s the big idea?
It’s crucial that you know what you’re writing about – yes, that sounds obvious, but it’s tempting to assume that creating a brief summary only requires a passing grasp of the content. In fact, to clarify and exemplify material requires you to thoroughly understand the big picture, and have a robust, working familiarity with the detail. Representing a report in micro-form means first identifying its proportions and architecture: what collapses if you move this or that supporting structure of the argument.
How many pages do you have?
What are the style / formatting guidelines?
Can you include key quotes from the report?
Is your structure clear and easy to navigate?
Have you created a good snapshot of the wider image?
4. How do I look?
There are various ways to present a summary; following the general structure of the main report is the obvious starting point, but avoid slavishly adhering to it subtitle-by-subtitle. You’re being asked to process complex ideas and lengthy arguments, and deliver them to the reader in an engaging and digestible way – not write up a secondary school science experiment (Hypothesis / Method / Results / Conclusion).
Using bullet points for key ideas and implications, and asking questions are more good ways to highlight important elements of the report, and draw the reader into the full piece.
Finally: the golden rule for summaries is to imagine the reader will never read the full report, but just what you’ve written here.