Writing for the United Nations


VII. Writing a summary


Writing a summary

Summarizing is a basic writing skill required in many functions in the United Nations. All reports of the Secretary-General should have a very short summary at the beginning of the report. In addition, you may frequently be called upon to summarize the contents of a long report or a speech to share with colleagues.

When asked to summarize a full report or speech, the summary should read smoothly and cohesively as a document on its own merits and provide an objective and concise version of the original. It should be between one quarter and one third of the length of the original document.

Note, however, that the summary provided at the beginning of all reports of the Secretary-General is much shorter. It is intended to give a very brief outline of the content of the report and will often consist of a simple account of the purpose of the report and a sentence giving the main content of each chapter.

The process of writing a summary

  • Read quickly through the entire document to be summarized.
  • Make sure you have understood the main ideas.
  • Take a pencil or highlighter and mark the most important words and phrases.
  • Write down in a paragraph what you have understood to be the main purpose or conclusion of the document.
  • Having formulated your initial response, now go back and read the document again, this time with two aims in mind:
    • Check whether your conclusion about the main purpose was correct; change it if necessary;
    • Make an outline of the main points being made (from your highlighted words): keep these in the original order but paraphrase them rather than quoting verbatim throughout.
  • If you have time, put the work aside for a day so that you can approach it with a fresh eye the next time.
  • Read through your purpose and outline. Write the first draft of the summary, working only from what you have written so far.
  • Re-read the document and note any main points you may have missed, making sure that you have presented the main ideas as they occur in the text.
  • Incorporate the missing points into your draft and revise for coherence and paragraph organization, making sure that your summary makes sense as an independent text.
  • Revise the final summary for errors; delete any unnecessary words.

Tips and techniques for writing a summary

  • Use the most economical wording possible.
  • Always write your summary in the past tense, using reported speech.
  • Be careful to preserve the original meaning; do not oversimplify or misrepresent.
  • Be careful to keep any essential conditions or distinctions.
  • Do not give any examples.
  • Do not draw conclusions of your own.

Now try writing a summary in exercise 32.

[Click here for exercise 32]

  | I. Introduction | II. Reader and purpose | III. Pre-writing techniques | IV. Standard report formats | V. Sentence and paragraph development | VI. Clarity in writing | VII. Writing a summary | VIII. Writing conclusions and recommendations | IX. Some last tips |  

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