We are often called upon to assist graduate students prepare summaries of articles. You probably know the kind of assignment to which I am referring. Find some articles on a topic and create a single paper on a theme using those articles as references.
Students do this regularly, but business professionals, consultants, researchers, and writers for professional journals also do this. For example, we assisted a state official who was asked to prepare a summary of current research on grammar instruction (a topic near and dear to our hearts!).
This type of task can be overwhelming, and the more articles you have, the more complicated it can seem. What do you say? Where do you start? How do you put together the information so that it makes sense and presents a logical, organized discussion?
Fortunately, we have a process for this, and it may assist you. I am a believer in processes for writing. Here are the steps to ours. (I know that 20steps seems complicated, but I have tried to be as specific as possible. Once you have done this one time, it will seem both logical and simple.)
Part A: Research
- Read the articles. (Of course!)
- Highlight significant points, facts, opinions, findings, statements, etc.
- Create a table on your word processor and list the highlighted text in columns under the article name (i.e., the article title is at the top of the column, and the findings are below the title). We call these raw article findings.
- Print out your table.
Part B: Generating ideas
- Review the article findings and begin creating a list of key words and topics addressed in the articles. Do this on paper.
- Organize the topics into an outline on a separate sheet of paper. This will be the outline of your summary. We recommend starting with an overview of the central theme, moving into specifics, and then concluding with consequences, next steps, or results. You will have to create an outline appropriate for your purpose.
- Label each component of your outline. Instead of the typical A, A1, A1a format, use initials that represent the content of each part of the outline. For example, a topic on teachers might be labeled “(T)” and a subtopic on teacher experience might be labeled “(TE).”
Part C: Coding the research findings
- Now, go back to your printed table and start labeling the findings. Label each item in your table with a code from your outline.
- Create additional subtopics from findings that do not seem to fit your outline, or create new levels in your outline if you have many findings that fall under one heading. Perhaps the subtopics can be further defined. When you are finished, each finding should have a label that corresponds to a label on your outline.
Part D: Preparing to write.
- Create a separate document on your word processor, and copy your outline to it. Leave 3 or 4 blank lines in between each heading.
- Select a column on your table, and color the text (e.g., make the text dark red or green).
- Using your labeled, printed copy of the findings as a reference, start copying and pasting the findings from your original table into the appropriate place on your outline. Do this for one article at a time. Because you colored the text in the columns, you will be able to identify the source for each piece of copied text when you copy it.
- At the top of the outline, put your in-text citation information for each article, and color the citation information to match the text for findings from that article. For example, if you colored the text for article A in dark green, also color the citation for article A in dark green. Note: if you have more than 6 or 7 citations, you may wish to create a separate document for them.
- Consider the text under each heading. Organize them in a logical manner that meets your purposes. Think about how you will organize the findings into a paragraph or two. Remember context first, followed by content, and ending with conclusion, impact, or action. Consider how you will create a transition to the next topic.
Part E: Writing:
- You now have all the details, and they are organized. Underneath the findings for the first outline topic, start writing the ideas in your own words. Only do this for one topic on your outline.
- Copy and paste the in-text citation information as needed.
- Create a new document. This is your draft. When you have finished writing about the first topic, copy it to the new document.
- Delete the heading, findings, and text from the outline so that the label and findings from the next topic are now below the list of citations (or at the top of the page if you created a separate document for citations).
- Continue with each subsequent topic on your outline, writing text for the findings, copying the text to the draft, and deleting the findings from the outline document. Eventually, the outline document will be empty and the draft document will be completed.
- Edit, revise, format, etc. the draft as needed, and create your reference list to match the in-text citations.
Congratulations! You now have your summary of the articles.
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