9 Step Strategy for Writing Summaries That Intrigue Readers

This article is about writing headlines, summaries and abstracts. Before we start, what is an Abstract?
Philip Koopman, at Carnegie Mellon University, reminds us that, “Writing an efficient abstract is hard work, but will repay you with increased impact on the world by enticing people to read your publications. Make sure that all the components of a good abstract are included in the next one you write.”
This article is about writing headlines, summaries and abstracts. Before we start, what is an Abstract
Photo Credit Pjern

Why We read Abstracts and Summaries?

When you open your inbox every Monday morning and see a stream of emails crying for attention. Which do you choose? I’d guess it’s the ones with the snappiest headlines, like these:

  • Zen and the Art of Remarkable Blogging
  • A Simple Four-Step Strategy for Developing Content That Connects
  • The Benjamin Franklin Guide to Marketing Your Business Online
  • Five Common Headline Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
  • Become a Master of Metaphor and Multiply Your Blogging Effectiveness
  • Metaphor, Simile and Analogy: What’s the Difference?

These are from CopyBlogger .com and show how smart headlines can tickle your fancy. So, when you read, ‘Are You Leaving Your Readers Out of the Conversation?’ you can’t help but start to answer the question in your mind. And when you do that, you open the article and start to read.
So, good headlines act like hooks bringing you into the story.
Abstracts are also important. We have an ever-increasing need for quick access to information we rely on abstracts and summaries to provide a snapshot of what’s in the article.
If you visualize it as a pyramid, on the top is headlines, then summaries, and then the body of the article. You can see how one leads to the other.

How To Write An Abstract

You have two options. Write it before you start on the main document or after you’ve finished writing, take a break and explore:

  • What is the main subject in this article?
  • What conclusion has the writer made?
  • What message does the writer want to convey?
  • What do you want the reader to do after reading the document?

Analyze this and define it in one sentence – this is your ‘topic’ sentence.
Write one topic sentence that covers the entire document, regardless of whether the document is a five page letter or a hundred page annual report.
1. Getting Ideas
Then, look at the recommendations, conclusions, summaries, and results in the final document. When abstracting a technical manual, look at the tutorials and see if these help form the topic sentence.
2. Don’t Use the Document’s Title
Avoid using the formal name of the document as this can be misleading and may not help you write the topic sentence. Chances are the ‘working title’ will be too vague. Parts of the title might serve as modifiers in your topic sentence, but you’ll probably need to go beyond the title.
3. Be Specific
Make the topic sentence as specific as possible.
Avoid writing

“This report describes [document title].”

Instead, write something like

“The results of this [subject] study show that [result].”

4. Use Supporting Sentences
After you identify your topic sentence, write supporting sentences. Make each of these supply specific details about the ideas in the topic sentence. Think of what supports the topic sentence.

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How? and
  • How much?

Give statistics, results, conclusions, or recommendations that back up the topic sentence. Only use two or three major supporting ideas. Include the less important evidence as subordinate clauses and modifiers.
5. Use Transitions
Arrange the supporting sentences in a logical sequence after the topic sentence. Add whatever transition is needed to connect the supporting sentences to the topic sentence and to connect ideas within the sentences to each other.
Re-write the sentences to improve the connections.

10 Other Ways to Write a Better Abstract

  1. Write the abstract only when the document is finished. Abstracts written before then are just previews.
  2. If you are forced to write an abstract before the document is completed, think about its purpose and write a topic sentence. Keep in mind that you’ll need to rewrite the abstract when the document is finished because it will no longer accurately reflect the contents of the document.
  3. Before starting the abstract, list your thoughts on the document. Group related items together.
  4. Prioritize the list and put the most important group first. The first few groups form the core of the topic sentence. The rest lead to supporting sentences.
  5. If you can’t create a topic sentence, write the supporting sentences first. The topic sentence may then become obvious.
  6. Write for an audience not necessarily up to speed in your subject area. This is important because you never know who will read your abstract.
  7. Choose acronyms, abbreviations, and technical terms carefully as they may confuse many readers.
  8. Define the scope of the project in the abstract.
  9. Re-read your abstract after several days have passed and remove superfluous information and padding.

This technique works for documents of any length from a couple of pages to multi-volumes.

Using Keywords in Abstracts

I’ve added this in as many business documents are published directly to the web. This tip applies to writing abstracts, headlines and summaries.
Use keywords in your Titles, Abstracts, Headlines are documents are file electronically. As users search for documents by keywords, write the documents headings with these keywords in mind.
Likewise, your abstract must contain keywords that about the article, proposal, or report so readers can retrieve it quickly.
What other ways can we improve our business documents?

5 thoughts on “9 Step Strategy for Writing Summaries That Intrigue Readers”

  1. Women are more chatty. Men naively believe what theyu2019re told.Let me just say, in the most professional and collegial way I can: That’s hogwash.I don’t dispute that the five things you’ve listed are vital to the job. But I disagree with all of the gender stereotypes. I’ve found that men and women are equally good at technical writing.

    1. I agree, though my strongest objection was not to the specific item you mentioned, Larry–that kind of generalization I tend to just dismiss as useless–individual men and women vary too much for it to be a useful observation, in my experience. What got me was the statement in “Doing Interviews”: “For whatever reason, the same observations when made by a women, donu2019t upset them so much.” I’ve been a tech writer for 20 years (and a tech writing manager for the last 15), and I’ve always found that many developers must be convinced that I’m smart enough for them to respect my opinions or observations. For many new developers, the initial reaction when I point out a design flaw is to assume that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I don’t think it’s usually because I’m a woman–I’ve always assumed that it was because I’m not a developer (or at least my title doesn’t include developer…). My point it, many a new-to-working-with-me developer has gotten quite upset over my questions/comments–until I’ve been able to demonstrate that I know what I’m talking about. (Earned) respect seems to be what makes the difference in how feedback is taken.

      1. Hi Nancy,nnEmily Harbury on Harvard Business gives some insight into this:nn”Masculine” vs. “feminine” women: It seems that ambition in women is often misinterpreted as aggression and being overly power-hungry. Laura Lopez writes about how toughness from a woman can be taken differently than toughness from a man. Similarly, women who allow their “feelings” to get in the way are perceived as too weak to lead and run others. This paradox can leave women unsure about how to best behave and people doubting their intentions as leaders.nnhttp://blogs.hbr.org/imagining-the-future-of-leadership/2010/05/can-she-lead.htmlnnSo, in the interviews, I think itu2019s more to do with this:nn<they are brought up stand their ground with other men but to accommodate the views of women.n<kind of generalization I tend to just dismiss as useless–individual men and women vary too much for it to be a useful observation. nnBut is that always true?nnFor example, car insurance is higher for men because u2018in generalu2019 they drive faster and get into more crashes. Women in general are safer drivers. nn<developer has gotten quite upset over my questions/comments–until I've been able to demonstrate that I know what I'm talking about. (Earned) respect seems to be what makes the difference in how feedback is taken.nnHereu2019s something to consider. Many (not all!) developers had a hard time of it as kids. Most were the geek on the street and didnu2019t get to hang out with the cooler kids. I'm sure youu2019ve seen this. and, of course, itu2019s not exclusive to guys.nnAs kids they got no respect. But in the IT workplace, if theyu2019re hot shot programmers, then they have a certain status. nnSo, when someone asks them to explain how to API works u2018in non-technical termsu2019, they may be so impressed. nI'm not saying thatu2019s you. You know that. But developers respect folks based on their technical knowledge. nnThatu2019s their currency. nnTechnical writers are not much different. nnI've got emails from technical writers highlighting that I've split an infinite or missing a full stop in a list. Or incredible anger that I've u2018raised a subjectu2019.nnFinally, one of the comments on the Harvard site says:nnWomen – in very subtle ways – prevent other women from reaching the top.nnDo you think thatu2019s true?

    2. You’ve just fallen into your own trap, dude! n<I disagree with all of the gender stereotypes.nThenu2026. n<Women are more chatty. Men naively believe what theyu2019re told.nnSo, let me just say, in the most professional and collegial way I can: That's hogwash too!n

  2. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.
    Thanks and Regards/-
    Jason Webb

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