How to Write a Summary

Write RightI tend to avoid questions related to creative writing since I’m a business writing coach and not a creative writing coach; however, one of my readers asked if I could give any insight into writing summaries for fiction works. I’m not sure I’ll have much insight as I’m not a fiction writer nor do I write summaries of my poems – they’re usually too short to require a summation. I also hope that what insights I do have will be of use to people who write for their businesses. Summaries, after all, are not solely the realm of fiction writers.

Summaries, at least in the fiction writing world, are called synopses. A summary or synopsis may also be called an abridgment, a précis, or an epitome. While the names may differ, the idea behind the names is essentially the same: the idea is to provide a miniature representation of the subject. In my reader’s case, the miniature representation would be of his latest novel. In the case of an architect, the miniature representation might introduce a lengthy proposal.

The duty of a synopsis, in addition to providing a miniature representation, is to show how the parts relate to the whole. This particular aim I understand; when I act as an editor, my work is to understand the composition in its entirety and to analyze how the parts build or undercut that whole. I then help the writer to refocus certain parts, to reorganize some parts, or even to cut parts that belie the whole.

The synopsis also should cover the main points of a work as succinctly as possible. Brevity is essential; the synopsis should contain only the elements that are essential to the full-length work. Of course, the synopsis may or may not contain all those essential elements. Part of the synopsis’ job is to generate interest and to persuade an editor, publisher, or reader to read the entire composition.

How to create that interest? I think that question perhaps relates more closely to what my reader asked and to the title of the post. My reader wanted to know if I had any tips for writing a synopsis. The answer is yes, I suppose I do.

I believe that writing a synopsis begins with asking why: Why should or would someone read the full-length work that the synopsis represents? The next few questions may be rearranged as one sees fit, but I’ll order them in the way that I would ask them:

  1. What is the big picture?
  2. What points are essential to painting that big picture?
  3. Which of those essential points could be more persuasive to an editor or reader?
  4. Can the points be stated more succinctly?

That is how I would plot and write a summary. How would you write one? Do you have any tips for my reader?

Comments

  1. Those are some excellent points to consider. I just may give it a try in the next couple of days and see if I can get something decent. I’m not sure why I don’t like writing them, but I don’t. Perhaps, if I write a good one, I’ll change my mind on the subject.

    • ExtremelyAvg Hmm. Would it help to think of a synopsis as a conversation? Let’s say I asked you to tell me about your latest novel. Would you tell me the entire story or only give me highlights? Would you tell me how it ended or create suspense so that I’d want to read the book? To make it more challenging, what if you only had two minutes to tell me about your novel? What would you say? How would you say it?

      • Erin F. ExtremelyAvg When I get in those situations I usually whimper, assume the fetal position and cry softly to myself until the person goes away. Am I to understand that isn’t an effective method of marketing?

        • ExtremelyAvg It’s not usually recommended. 
          Let’s see. What if you only were allowed to write three paragraphs with five sentences each? No cheating; you have to use normal sentences, nothing akin to Faulkner.

        • ExtremelyAvg Erin F. That has to be the funniest thing I have read in days Brian. If I even took you half-way seriously about that comment you would have me reeling. My lord.

        • rdopping ExtremelyAvg Erin F. I do like going for a chuckle. Erin has actually given me a really good plan and tomorrow I’m going to get my latest novel ready for the beta readers and send a synopsis with it, for their opinions.

        • ExtremelyAvg rdopping Ta da! Writing coaching in action. :))

  2. Erin, great tips. I am pasting these infront of my face (well on my desk anyway) as I live in the world of summary (at least at work) and I am one of the most verbose people I know. It takes considerable skill to distill an idea to its essence without losing the intent. This is something I will need to practice incessantly to come even close to even par.

    • rdopping Thanks!
      I sometimes play a game. What happens if I delete this paragraph or this sentence? Does it change the meaning? Does the meaning change for the better or the worse? Actually, I might play this game more often than I thought. I like to push language to its limits.

      • Erin F. rdopping That’s a game? I do that regularly too. When i write i write on the subway to and from work in 15min spurts so ideas sometimes get mixed in with others and I repeat thoughts. When i edit I usually take out whole thoughts that don’t end up as relevant to the piece. I have a file that is filled with random paragraphs of abandoned thoughts. 
        The Land of Abandoned Thoughts

        • rdopping I view it as a game, but I’m odd like that. I think it goes back to writing poetry and deciding upon line and word arrangements.
          I, too, have unfinished drafts and files with paragraphs I think I might use at a later point.

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