A table of contents systematically summarizes the essentials of a text or a film. We have everything you need to know about the structure, characteristics, tips and examples of structured summaries.
Whether for school, university, at work, or even privately – a summary of content is needed in many areas. But few people know what makes a good summary and how it should ideally be written.
What a summary is
What a summary is
Content summaries are part of the basics of writing. They give an informative overview of a topic without the reader having to deal with it himself. They reduce content to its essentials and are therefore also popular in school as an important writing exercise.
When writing a synopsis, it is important to leave out non-essential information and to use your own words to summarize only what is most important. A clear structure, consisting of introduction, main body and conclusion, is used here for better understanding. Forms of content statements are.
In English lessons or when doing scientific work at university, there is often talk of a "summary". Translated, it means "table of contents" and is a systematic summary of a text, just like in German. Here you can find instructions and important tips for the summary.
Characteristics of a summary
In this chapter we have a short fact sheet about the summary for you. In it you can find all the important information about time, language and structure at a glance. Below we have a detailed guide and examples for you.
- Tense: Present tense
- Structure: Introduction, main body, conclusion
- Language: Factual, concise wording, use your own words (rewrite source text)
- Quotations: Use only indirect speech (not literal)
- Narrative perspective: Always use the he/she form (personal narrator)
Preparation: 4 tips before you start
4 tips before you start
In order to save yourself a lot of work in the writing process, it is important that you do a good preliminary work in order to then make faster progress in writing. In addition, it gives your text a clear structure if you have organized yourself well in advance and have an orderly overview.
Read the text several times
Read through the text several times. This creates a better understanding of the subject matter, and often one or the other context becomes much clearer with multiple readings. This is because the second or third time you read it, you can focus your attention on completely different things than the first time, since you now already know what it’s about.
Answer the classic W questions
To create an initial structure, you can answer the classic seven W questions during the second reading: Who? What? Like? When? Where? Why? Wherefore? Depending on the type of text, the answers to these questions may be different, but they always provide a good guide.
Sometimes you may not be able to answer all the questions. For a novel, for example, you might ask the following questions:
- Who is the protagonist?
- Where does the action take place??
- When does the story take place?
- What is the topic?
- How does the protagonist get into his situation??
In a scientific text or study, these questions would be phrased differently. Because, for example, there is no action to be described there. Instead, you describe a specific subject or a perspective on scientific findings.
Underline important terms and names
Underline important terms and names
In every text there are important terms or names that are central to the topic. Mark them visibly so that you can find important scenes or topics more quickly. In addition, you can get a better understanding of how the text is structured by marking it.
Use paragraphs and subheadings
As a further step, you can now divide the text into sections, which you can give headings. This allows you to quickly refer back to important passages in the text and opens up an initial structure for the following content statement.
- Have I read the text more than once?
- Have all W-questions been answered??
- Have underlined important names and key terms?
- Are there logical sections of meaning and subheadings?
Writing a summary: Structure& Instructions
How to write a summary
After the preparation, the three-part work on your content summary begins. Its structure usually consists of an introduction and main section, but sometimes a conclusion with a personal evaluation is also assumed.
Always write your summary in the present tense, avoid direct speech and formulate short, concise sentences. This is the best way to make your text understandable and accessible to the reader. We have a checklist for you for each step of the guide.
Every introduction of a summary follows the same principle. It usually consists of one or two sentences. These tell you very precisely and directly what the text is about, who the protagonists are, what the plot of the story is and where it takes place.
In principle, you now use the classic W-questions already mentioned above to write a good introduction. You can also think of all the important elements for the introductory sentence with the abbreviation "TATTE" bookmark. The individual letters of this abbreviation stand for: Titel, Autor, Textsort, Theme and Erscheinungsjahr. An example of your introduction:
Correct: The novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe from 1774 is written in epistolary form and is a tragic love story. The main protagonist is Werther, a young man who falls in love with an already engaged young woman named Lotte. As time goes on, Werther loses himself in this hopeless love story and ends up committing suicide.
Wrong: In the book "The Sorrows of Young Werther" by Goethe is about a man named Werther who commits suicide.
- Have I answered all the W-questions?
- If the content is brief and to the point?
- Contain all the important information?
The main part
The main part of your summary
The introduction is followed by the main part of the summary. It is the longest part of your summary and requires the most self-effort from you. Here you describe in your own words what exactly happens in the text or movie.
Avoid direct quotations and the use of colloquial language. Also, be sure to use chronological order and present tense when writing the content.
As mentioned above, you should write your summary in the present tense (present tense). This rule is universal and allows the reader easy access to the content.
Exceptions are internal stories, i.e. narratives within a narrative, as in the example of "Nathan the Wise". The past tense is allowed here. Texts written in the present tense are usually easier to understand and can be read more quickly. In the example you can see the difference:
Correct: The main protagonist is Werther, a young man who falls in love with an already engaged young woman named Lotte.
Wrong: The main protagonist was Werther, a young man who fell in love with an already engaged young woman named Lotte.
Direct speech does not belong in a summary. Therefore, you should always rephrase when you want to use a quote or a dialogue in your text. Resort to indirect quotations and indirect speech, as shown in the example:
Correct: At the beginning of the epistolary novel, Werther writes to his best friend that he is glad to be away.
Wrong: At the beginning of the epistolary novel, Werther writes: "How glad I am that I am gone?"
- Did I write everything in the present tense?
- If indirect speech is used instead of direct speech?
- Avoid quotes and slang?
The conclusion of your summary
The ending or conclusion is usually optional in a summary of the content. However, it is sometimes explicitly required and should then of course not be forgotten. In this case it is an "extended summary".
The conclusion allows you to add a personal note or evaluation. This can be your own opinion on the author’s intention or a review of the content. However, this part should be short and no more than three to four sentences long. Clarify at this point if these are your own views so that the conclusion stands out from the factual rendering.
Right: Through the character of Nathan, Lessing clearly shows that peaceful coexistence between different religions is possible. Finally, all three religions are united in one family, i.e. they are directly connected with each other. The message that emerges from the play is that every religion has its right to exist and none is superior to the other.
Wrong: A peaceful coexistence of the world’s religions is possible and their members stand side by side on an equal footing.
- Reflect my own opinion?
- Is it clear to the reader that this is my opinion??
- Is the part not too long?
Examples for a summary
Examples for a summary
How to write a summary often looks different in theory than in practice. Each text or movie belongs to its own genre and reveals different information.
From the short story "Spaghetti for two" for example, no publication date is known. We have put together three different examples of a content summary for you.
Short story: "Spaghetti for two
The following synopsis is a prime example of a short story that is meant to encourage people to rethink prejudices. It has a short introductory sentence that contains all the information given by the text. In addition, there is a factual main part and a personal evaluation at the end.
Whether your opinion is asked at the end of the summary depends on the context. If your teacher has explicitly asked for it, you should include it. In a presentation, after which the effect of the text is to be discussed, you should not reveal your opinion at first.
The short story "Spaghetti for Two" by Frederica de Cesco, with no known publication date, is about a mix-up that addresses prejudice against strangers.
A white, 14-year-old boy named Heinz eats lunch in a self-service restaurant. He has ordered an Italian soup, but has forgotten his spoon. After grabbing his spoon, he realizes that there is now a colored boy at his table and his soup is.
Heinz is annoyed but does not say anything because he does not want to be perceived as racist. He thinks about whether he might be an asylum seeker who has little money and is hungry. He also assumes that the other boy may not speak his language at all.
Heinz sits down with him and they eat the soup together. The other boy then fetches another plate of spaghetti – the two strangers also share it in silence. When Heinz happens to look around, he discovers a cold soup at the next table. He realizes that he was wrong about the table and is deeply ashamed of himself.
The strange boy recognizes the situation, starts to laugh and Heinz has to laugh too. The boy then introduces himself as Marcel. He speaks very good German. The two boys arrange to meet again the next day to eat together.
The short story shows how quickly we can be influenced by prejudices. It calls for not judging people by their appearance and shows that there is no reason to do so. It also encourages you to reflect on your own behavior and to look for faults not only in others, but also in yourself.
Drama: "Nathan the Wise"
"Nathan the Wise" by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
The drama "Nathan the Wise" deals with the theme of humanity and tolerance. It is often used in schools to enlighten students and to teach them important moral values.
You can consider the following sample text as a kind of sample solution for the entire work. Depending on the assignment or if you are supposed to summarize only one chapter, the summary can change. Here you can find everything you need to know about the scene analysis.
"Nathan the Wise" is a drama of ideas in five acts by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing from the Age of Enlightenment. It was published in 1779 and its first performance was in Berlin in 1783. The action takes place at the time of the Third Crusade of the Christians in the 12th century. In the sixteenth century during a truce in Jerusalem. The play is primarily about the Jewish merchant and protagonist Nathan, who unites Jews, Christians, and Muslims through his humanistic and tolerant worldview.
Nathan is returning from a long business trip when he learns that his house is on fire and a Christian Knight Templar has rescued his daughter Recha. The knight of the order was the only one of twenty prisoners left alive by Sultan Saladin, because he resembles his lost brother Assad. Nathan wants to thank the knight of the order. The latter, however, behaves dismissively, as he wants nothing to do with Jews.
The Sultan wants to achieve peace between Christians and Muslims. He has Nathan called to him and asks which religion he thinks is the ‘true’ religion. The merchant fears that he might be punished by a wrong answer and instead tells an old story: The ring parable.
The Ring Parable is about a family tradition in which a father passes on a ring to his favorite son in each generation. The ring would make its wearer popular with God and mankind. One day, however, a father could not decide between his three sons, so he had duplicates made. After his death, the sons argued about who had the ‘true’ ring. They called in a judge, but he refused to give a verdict. He said that each son should consider his ring as the ‘true’ one, as all would reflect their father’s love. It is the same with the religions, said Nathan. Impressed by the story, the sultan offers Nathan his friendship.
The Knight Templar realizes that he has fallen in love with Recha. At first he withdraws, but then he can’t stand it any longer and wants to marry her despite their different religions. He then learns that Recha is only Nathan’s foster daughter and is actually from a Christian home. Nathan also inquires about the origin of the Knight Templar.
In the Sultan’s palace, the two men finally meet and it turns out that the knight and Recha are siblings and that their biological father is the Sultan’s missing brother. The Muslim sultan is thus the uncle of two Christian children, one of whom grew up with a Jewish merchant. All three religions are united in one family.
In his work, Lessing addresses a conflict that has endured to this day. It shows that the boundaries of religions can be overcome with humanity and tolerance and that members of different religions can also be members of one family.
Poem: "The Two"
At the beginning of a poem analysis you often need a short summary of the content. It can be compared to the introduction of a detailed synopsis and usually consists of only a few sentences. Here it is especially important to answer the W questions.
In our example, we have summarized the poem "Die Beiden" (1896) by Hugo von Hofmannsthal for you.
The poem "Die Beiden" by Hugo von Hofmannsthal from 1896 comes from the epoch of symbolism and is about an unrequited love.
The first stanza describes a woman holding a cup with ease in her hand. The second stanza is about a man who reins in his horse with a firm hand and rides to the woman. In the third stanza, the two meet. The man tries to grab the cup, but both of them suddenly it is too heavy and falls to the ground. The cup symbolizes their love, which remains unfulfilled.