Summary and Exposition- 2011 Workshop

Presenter: Elizabeth Tasker-Davis

When asked to write a summary, an inexperienced student writer will often load a summary with his/her own opinions. Of course, this is a mistake.  While many assignments require students to give their opinions, they need to be able to clearly differentiate between their own summaries of another’s work and their own opinions.

From Informing to Persuading

Students need to know when to summarize, when to analyze, and when to offer opinion in their writing.  The Objectivity Chart can help students see the spectrum of objectivity and subjectivity, which is also represented in the following terms and definitions:  

Summary: an accurate, succinct, and clear encapsulation of a longer text (an article, book, chapter, speech, etc.).

Exposition: descriptive, informative writing.

Interpretation:  an explanation or technique of telling that combines fact with stimulating explanation.

Analysis: a written examination of a complex, its elements, and their relationships; analysis combines summary and interpretation.

Explication: analysis of a text.

Evaluation, Argument, and Proposal – involve persuasion and introduce more of the writer’s own opinion and subjectivity.

Note that unsupported opinion appears on the spectrum in the link above.  While unsupported opinion does sometimes appear in academic writing, lack of support is a flaw in the logic of the writer and will often diminish the writer’s credibility in the eyes of the reader.

Writing Summaries

The ability to write an accurate and objective summary is one of the most underrated skills in academic and professional writing.  A summary is a description of another text and is always shorter than the original work it summarizes.  A summary boils down the main points of the longer work.  A good summary has four qualities: brevity, completeness, accuracy, and objectivity.

Summaries often distill the main points of a longer work into only a few sentences.  However, in certain genres of academic writing, such as in the annotated bibliography, a more detailed summary may be what is needed by and useful to readers.  In addition to the main points of the source, a more detailed summary should include key quotes and paraphrase key passages.

In writing a summary, the first step is careful reading of the source.  As students read, they need to be thinking about and trying to identify the author’s thesis (i.e., argument/main purpose for writing), as well as his/her main points.  This can be tricky.  While some texts have a deductive organization, announcing their thesis first and supporting details second, other texts unfold their purpose inductively with the details presented first, leading up to thesis at the end. Still other texts can be meandering and loosely organized; their main arguments are difficult to identify.

Types of summaries:

One sentence summary – thesis only

Short summary – thesis + summary of key points

Longer or extended summary – thesis + key points + carefully chosen, representative details.


Tips for Summary Assignments

Considerations for creating summary assignments:

  1. Length requirements: one sentence, short, or extended?  Contexualize; give a rational for your length requirement.
  2. Tell students that the author and title of the source should be introduced immediately.
  3. How much attribution is necessary?  How many times must the writer say “According to…”?
  4. Summary vs. Paraphrase
  5. Paraphrase vs. Quoting

Exercise: Extended Summary Assignment

Extended summaries are excellent short writing exercises to help students to learn to write objectively.  Look for materials to summarize that are not too long but that have nuance and multiple purposes.  Editorials and short stories are both good choices.

For this exercise, envision that students would write a detailed 1-1.5 page summary of “What Haiti Needs” by Bill Clinton.  This editorial article appeared in the January 25, 2010 issue of Time magazine.

  1. Read the article. Mark the key points, what you consider the thesis to be, and key phrases or terms that you think are worth quoting.
  2. Working in small groups, write an extended summary.  Try to present Clinton’s message and position as accurately and objectively as possible, without opinion or judgment.

Your summary should

  • begin by clearly identify the author and title of the essay.
  • immediately state the author’s thesis (main claim or argument).
  • include the major points that support the author’s argument.
  • use your own original sentences and sentence structures.
  • use one or two quotations to represent key phrases .
  • be well-edited and clear of grammatical and punctuation mistakes.
  1. Discuss with entire class.


Exposition is a general term for informative writing—writing in which the main purpose is to convey information.


  • Reports
  • Expository Essay (generally 3rd person, descriptive, non-persuasive)
  • Profiles

Methods of Development

Definition – describing what a subject means or is

Description – describing the subjects qualities

Classification – identifying the group(s) or categories a subject belongs to

Division – categorizing the smaller parts or subsets of a subject

Example – describing a particular specimen of the subject


Considerations of Style

When writing a descriptive text, what consideration should the writer have of style?  Do voice, tone, and word choice matter?  YES! Words carry feeling as well as meaning!

This is how I describe voice, tone, and diction to students: 


Voice, or stance, is the unique way a writer presents him or herself to the reader. The writer’s voice should be adapted to the situation in which he or she is writing. When crafting voice, writers must consider their audience and purpose, as well as the context of the essay or document. To better understand the use of voice in writing, ask students to think about how they present themselves verbally in different situations; they speak one way when attending class, another way when they are on a date, and yet another way when on a job interview. People adjust their voices for the different roles they play in various scenarios. Each of the roles is an authentic part of real life, but with each scenario people have to adjust their behavior, demeanor, and words to suit the occasion and the audience. This role playing is similar to the way writers develop voice when presenting their ideas in writing.  Writers must always keep in mind the specific purpose and audience of an essay, argument, report, or any type of text and strive adopt an appropriate tone.


Tone refers to the level of formality of a writer’s voice.  Using a tone appropriate for the situation will help create a credible voice. In academic writing, a sincere and straightforward tone helps demonstrate that the writer is serious about his/her subject and respectful of the audience. This does not mean that writers can never use humor or irony in academic writing, but they must consider carefully when and why they would do so.  While a writer may adopt a playful tone at times to entertain readers and keep them interested, in academic writing the writer should not distract readers with irrelevant information or word-play.  Choosing the right words is important to achieving an effective voice and tone–which brings us to diction. 


Diction is a fancy term for word choice.  The kinds of words writers choose depend upon their educational and linguistic background and upon the audience and purpose of their essay. Formal diction is characterized by longer and more sophisticated words and words specific to a particular discipline or profession. Formal diction contributes to a conventional style and creates objectivity and distance from the reader. Often used in college textbooks, scientific journals, and philosophical essays, formal diction is standard for exposition of serious subjects directed to educated audiences. Informal diction is characterized by colloquialisms and sometimes dialect (“y’all”), slang, contractions, and non-standard usage (“ain’t”). Informal diction more closely copies everyday speech. Informal diction brings the writer and audience closer. Informal diction is used in personal letters, the personal essay, and all sorts of short, written communication. As always, audience and purpose determine the degree of formality of one’s diction and one’s style.

Exposition Exercise

Research shows that integrating grammar considerations into the students’ writing process is an effective way to teach grammar.  The following invention exercise uses both rhetoric and grammar to develop material for three short expository texts.

Three prompts:

#1 – Describe a class; your audience is another teacher.

#2 – Describe a student; your audience is another student.

#3 – Describe a physical classroom; your audience is an interior designer.


For each of the three prompts above:

  1.  Think of why you might be writing a description of that topic to the specified audience.  (This is your PURPOSE for writing).  Write down this purpose.
  2.  Make two lists: the first list will contain the nouns and noun phrases that you would want to convey about the topic to the audience; the second list are the verbs that you think are important about the topic with respect to the audience.
  3.  Discuss your lists with your group.  Did you find value listing the nouns and verbs?  How might that exercise help students with the invention process?  How might it help with drafting?  How might it help with diction?  How might it help with grammar?
  4.  Share with the class.