Summary: characteristics + 5 simple tips on how to write one

Use a summary to summarize a longer text. It offers others, who have not read the text, an overview of the central contents. At the same time, use it to demonstrate your own understanding of the material. Content statements are especially important for students, as they are part of the learning process. We will show you how to write a table of contents and which mistakes you should avoid..

Content summary: characteristics + 5 simple tips on how to write one

➠ Content: What to expect

What is a summary?

A table of contents is a summary. Often it is about texts – such as longer articles or books. However, you can also use a table of contents to reproduce essential statements of a film, play or radio play. The decisive factor is that it is a substrate that gets to the heart of the core messages. In the following, we will mainly use texts as a guide.

Table of contents, abstract, summary or expose are components of scientific work, which are closely related to the content summary. There are differences here, especially in the addressees and the objective. Thus, it is indispensable for students to deal with the subject matter.

What are the characteristics of a table of contents?

The main characteristics of a summary are its objectivity and its brevity compared to the original text. Because an exact scope cannot be determined. On the one hand, this depends on how extensive the original text is. On the other hand, specifications may make it necessary not to exceed a certain number of pages when writing. Other characteristics are:


Three components make up the content statement:

  • Introduction
    The introduction consists of one sentence, in which you inform about title, author, text type and time of the origin/action. In addition, you give a brief hint about the plot. Instead of introduction, the term basic or core sentence can also be found. For example: "The novel ABC by the writer XY takes place in the post-war period. It illustrates the flourishing black market in Berlin through the fate of a fictional family."
  • Main part
    Here you describe the actual action in a neutral chronological order. For this purpose, you can use transition words such as "first", "after", "finally" and the like. The correct tense is the present tense. Only when past events are mentioned within the action in the text, use the perfect tense. For example: "Jacob sells cigarettes on a large scale, which he has previously fetched from his hiding place."
  • Conclusion
    The table of contents ends with the last relevant point of the text. Depending on teacher or instructor guidelines, the conclusion may include a conclusion. In this case, your own opinion is welcome, but you should be able to justify it by the text in a comprehensible way. So if a text seems long-winded to you, you would have to argue something like this: "The author does not succeed in maintaining the suspense, because he digresses from the actual topic for longer passages (especially chapter __ page __ to __)." Taboo, on the other hand, are judgmental phrases such as "crass, good, bad, uninteresting".


If you read a table of contents, you should be able to answer questions about these points afterwards:

  • Storyline
  • Actors
  • Time
  • Place
  • Reasons

Behind this are central W-questions: What, who, when, where and why? These should run like a thread through your content summary. If you take these into account, you can be sure to provide a complete summary of the text.

A table of contents gives the plot in a condensed way and in a factual tone. You should avoid colloquialisms, humorous or tendentious phrases, even if there are strongly evaluative expressions in the original text. Do not include complete quotations; you should never reproduce the content of a speech verbatim. Direct speech is rendered in indirect speech.

Example: What is a subjunctive?

For the table of contents, you must convert direct speech into indirect speech. This is done in German by using the subjunctive I.

Original sentence: The mother says to Jacob: "Be careful when you play in the street." Sentence in indirect speech with subjunctive: The mother tells Jakob to be careful when he plays in the street.

How to write a good summary?

The basic prerequisite is that you yourself have understood the content. Reproduction is difficult and inaccurate if individual passages are unclear to you. A summary also requires a certain degree of expressiveness: The art is to reproduce the contents in your own words, i.e. to know synonyms and related phrases. Furthermore, the writer must have the ability to separate the important from the unimportant.

Purely descriptive content – for example, lengthy elaborations on the landscape or similar – can be reduced. It is clear that a summary is much shorter than the original. And that is intentional: It saves the reader time and at the same time allows him or her to form a judgment. For example, when you read the blurb of a book to be able to decide whether it arouses your interest or not. The following overview shows what you need to write a good summary:

Please note these things

  • Objective style
  • Present tense
  • Own formulations
  • Short version
  • Chronological order

Please avoid these mistakes

  • Many details
  • Humorous/exciting style
  • Verbatim reproduction
  • Own opinion (only in the conclusion!)
  • No repeats

Writing a summary: This is how you proceed

1. Read the text

The first step is to read the text and give yourself an overview of the content. This step should not be underestimated: Especially with scientific texts or texts in a foreign language, it may mean that you have to read the text or individual passages several times to get through it.

2. Mark keywords

While you are reading the text, you should mark central terms in color. Be careful not to underline entire sentences, but to focus on essentials. Otherwise, there is a risk that you will not be able to identify the core messages of the text afterwards, because everything seems to be equally important without distinction.

3. Divide passages

Then read the text one more time and divide it into different sense sections. For these, choose appropriate headings that characterize the passage in question. Make sure that you summarize text passages that belong together – for example, if the same persons or events are addressed. Otherwise, the content statement can quickly become incomprehensible.

4. Writing a summary

Now summarize what you’ve read using your notes, which means turning your headings into slightly more detailed phrases now. In doing so, you should follow the above guidelines for structure, style and content of the synopsis. Be careful not to formulate too closely to the text, but to find your own terms. Depending on the situation, you may want to discuss the author’s intentions or express your personal opinion in the conclusion.

5. Read the synopsis

In principle, you are now ready – all that follows is the finishing touches: proofread your own summary and check whether it is formulated comprehensibly. If you can answer the above W-questions with the help of the summary, you have written a good summary.

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