The Art of Distillation – How to Write a Summary

Writing the summary can seem a tricky part of the report writing process, particularly if your report has covered an extensive investigation, large amounts of data and has complex conclusions. So here is some guidance on How To Write A Summary.

Before starting to write a summary, you need to think about the purpose of the summary and who the readers will be.

Here are four possible purposes – can you think of any more?

1. An Extended Title
The summary is an extended title and gives the reader enough information to find out what the report is about, whether they wish to read the entire document, or whether there is a section of particular interest to them.

2. A Short Version
The summary is a short version of the report for people who do not have time to read the whole report. Senior managers, who need to know the conclusions and recommendations of your work, but not the fine detail, will read the summary.

3. A Map Of The Document
The summary provides a map and overview of the whole document. By reading the summary you get a picture of the scope of the document and this will enhance your ability to absorb, interpret and understand the document as you read it. The summary prepares your brain for receiving new information and making connections with existing information.

4. An Aid To Memory
Summaries provide repetition and reinforcement and aid memory by giving you the opportunity to read the key facts twice. If you have a read a document sometime in the past, a quick re-read of the summary will remind you of the salient facts.

A summary is not a forum for new information. Do not introduce new ideas into the summary, which are not explored in the main report.

Method for Writing A Summary

  • Write the summary last but position it first in the report
  • Read through the report and highlight the key points and information
  • Make a mind-map of the key information if you wish
  • Number the key points in order of importance to the reader
  • Write the summary from these notes
  • The order of information in a summary will not necessarily be the same as in the main report.

Structure of The Summary
In a summary the information should be presented in the order of greatest importance to the readers. Summaries with different purposes will have different structures.

Technical Report Summary Structure

  • Why we investigated it – context, background, challenge, gap in knowledge
  • What we did
  • What we found
  • What it means – the impact
  • What next – further work required, recommendations

Reports for Action
Where a report is written to ask for action or a decision:

  • Recommended action stated first
  • Main reasons for the recommendation given
  • Statement of cost, savings, timings and more detailed evidence
  • Restate the recommended action

Reports For The Record

Where a report is written for the record, an appropriate structure would be:

  • One or two sentences to summarise the introduction
  • A few sentences to summarise the method and results
  • The second and larger half of the summary to state the main conclusions.

I hope this will help you to write your next summary more easily. If you would like to develop your technical and business writing skills please get in touch for more information about our workshops and coaching. .

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