Summaries are Arguments

Summaries are Arguments

Every time we summarize someone else’s article (or book, or editorial, or autobiography, or ((god forbid)) memoir), we are making an argument, whether we like it or not. Condensing a long work into a short work requires us to make choices. We edit out what we think is unimportant. We impose a narrative structure on the material that remains after we have discarded what we deem to be irrelevant to the primary point of the original.


We’re making an argument.

When our Summaries fail to take a position on the material provided in the original, they waste everybody’s time.

Example 1


Women with breast cancer will not always get the answers they are looking for. They may go to a doctor and the doctor may tell them they don’t have it when they really do or the doctor may tell them they have it when they really don’t which are both bad but understandable and forgivable errors. Some say that at certain places, only about 80% of all tests are read correctly and 20% are given false information. Because of false information given and pressure or lawsuits filed against doctors for not reading films correctly, doctors are starting to perform at a better level, knowing that it’s dependent on their readings to save a life. There are some doctors who don’t have the right training and shouldn’t be doing the job. Just because they are doctors, and more doctors reading films sounds better, on the contrary, fewer doctors who know more about what is happening in the imaging is a better strategy. Doctors need to be trained to make the best initial reading so they don’t give bad preliminary diagnoses that result in additional scans or even biopsies.

The best summaries combine a FACT with a CONSEQUENCE to make an ETHICAL JUDGMENT.

  1. This summary flirts with judgment in its first two sentences, but fails to capitalize on the opportunity.
  2. It says: “They may go to a doctor and the doctor may tell them they don’t have it when they really do or the doctor may tell them they have it when they really don’t, which are both bad but understandable and forgivable errors. ”
  3. THE FACT: Some patients get false positives; others, false negatives.
  4. THE CONSEQUENCE: Both are bad.
  5. THE ETHICAL OBJECTION: None stated.

The summary makes an additional tactical error.

  1. It starts by speaking for “women with breast cancer,” but the second sentence attempts to speak also for “false positives,” which are women without breast cancer.
  2. THE RESULT: It wastes its first two sentences by advancing no particular argument.

Every word of a Purposeful Summary develops a particular opinionated point of view. Here, the summary confuses your readers about who it’s advocating for: cancer victims or false diagnosis victims.


Mammograms are not accurate. They deceive women with cancer into believing they’re healthy. Less tragically, they falsely diagnose tumors where there are none. Neither outcome is acceptable.

When we can adopt an attitude that unambiguous, we’re well on our way to achieving the confidence necessary for a good essay. “Trying to see things both ways” is the enemy of clarity and judgment. Deliberate ambiguity is just as bad as unintentional ambiguity. Don’t quibble. Acknowledge uncertainty where it exists, but wherever choices can be made, MAKE THEM.

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