Writing a summary

Posted on April 3, 2023

At some point in our working lives, most of us are asked to give a summary of a report, a meeting or a conference. It might be that our colleagues want to know about the event or document. More often, it’s senior management that requires the summary.

We write summaries to achieve a specific purpose: answer specific questions, help a reader make a decision, or help a reader decide whether or not to read the entire report.

Characteristics of a good summary

A well-written summary:

  • is clear, coherent and objective
  • is written in plain language
  • moves from specific and detailed (in the report) to general (in the summary; in other words, details are rolled up to show patterns and trends)
  • distinguishes between essential and non-essential information, on the basis of audience needs
  • has content appropriate for the reader
  • contains high quality writing: clear sentences, correct punctuation and grammar, appropriate level of vocabulary

Structure of a summary

A good summary, like other documents, has three sections (see the table below); however, these sections are considerably shorter than in other documents.

Sections of a summary
  • Usually 1 to 3 paragraphs
  • Purpose of report, title (and author, if important), and date published; or purpose of meeting, title and date held
  • Issue or problem statement (perhaps plural, if you are summarizing a meeting)
  • Scope or limitations
  • Usually 1 to 2 pages
  • Most important findings or key points addressed
  • Brief analysis of each
  • Usually 1 to 2 paragraphs
  • Conclusions – the author’s if you are summarizing a report, or yours in other circumstances
  • Recommendations, if appropriate

The introduction sets up your reader to know what’s coming in the rest of the summary. In the summary of a report, the body presents only the most important findings, usually in the same order as in the report. And the conclusion identifies the author’s conclusion(s) and any recommendations the author makes as a result of the conclusion(s) they drew.

In the summary of a meeting, the body presents the key points discussed at the meeting, and the conclusion presents your own conclusions and recommendations.

Guidelines for summarizing a report

When writing a summary of a report, use your own words: don’t copy and paste statements directly from the report; don’t use footnotes; and don’t use examples, quotes or visuals. Also, in summaries, we never include background; and, unless it’s very important, we never include methodology.

Identify key findings

When you’re starting to identify the most important findings, think first about your readers: what do they need to know? Choose the most important findings on the basis of who the audience is.

Remember that, in your summary, you have room for only the most significant findings; if there are many, you can group them by theme or category. Also, you can add a few supporting points to briefly explain or support each key finding. If you are asked, provide some analysis: indicate why these are the most relevant findings for the reader and what they each mean to the reader.

To figure out what to include, look for the key topic words or phrases; you’ll usually find them in the first and last paragraphs of each section. You can also look for transition words that enumerate (for example, “first,” “second”); that express causation (for example, “consequently,” “as a result”); that signal essentials (for example, “central,” “principal,” “basically”); and that compare or contrast (for example, “however,” “more than,” “less likely”).

Include conclusions and recommendations

As you write the conclusion, draw on the author’s conclusions; and identify key recommendations, or group the author’s recommendations by category or theme.

Guidelines for summarizing a meeting

If you’re summarizing a meeting or a conference, be sure that you’re thinking about the reader(s) and what they need to know. If this is a stakeholder meeting, for example, senior management will probably want to know the points on which stakeholders seemed to agree and the points on which they differed, and why.

Your analysis is very valuable to your reader. Use it to identify why the facts you state are important for the reader to consider as they choose a course of action. Your analysis also supports any recommendation you make.


Keep the summary to a reasonable length. The best practice is no longer than 10 percent of the report that you’re summarizing. However, many readers aren’t interested in anything longer than three pages, and often they prefer two pages.

Plain language

Last, use the readability statistics option in your word processing software to improve the flow, employ active voice verbs and enhance sentence logic. (For other tips like this, read my blog post Plain language: It’s not just for children (opens in new tab).)

In conclusion, if you follow the guidelines outlined above, your summaries will be well structured, complete and effective. Let us know in the comments section how well you succeed!


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Elva Keip

Elva Keip

Elva Keip works as a consultant and provides both training and writing services to clients. Most of her courses focus on writing well. Regardless of the topic, every course features a brief section on using plain language to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. She loves writing documents and supporting other people as they enhance their writing skills.


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Submitted by Tom Vradenburg on April 4, 2023, at 12:08

I'm happy to see a post specifically about writing summaries: managers should never assume that their new hires can do this by virtue of having graduated from an educational institution. This is a learned skill that few master on talent alone.
Elva is careful about recommending readability indices: they may offer hints about where you can buff some awkward edges in your writing, but don't take the numbers they spit out as any kind of guidance.
My PL hack: search your text for "tion of" to weed out nominalizations—replace those clunky phrases with the root verb.
Let "audience-specific" and simple sentence structures be your guide to plain language. Readability metrics are overrated.

Submitted by Emma on April 27, 2023, at 7:48

Great, such an informative article. glad to read a piece about writing summaries: employers should never presume that their new workers can accomplish this just because they graduated from an educational institution. This is an acquired ability that few people perfect just via talent.
As someone who's already been studying in Canada for a few months, I can attest to everything you've said. I can say employers in Canada don't judge freshers on this basis. The education system is top-notch and the people are incredibly welcoming.