A Summary of Summary

Last week, I made a major edit to a Wikipedia entry for the first time in years. The page in question was about the defunct Roodyards railway station in Dundee. Although no evidence of the station survives, I had a picture illustrating its approximate location, so I posted it.

Back when the site was still a novelty, I used to make contributions on a regular basis. I created my account in May 2006, although I did make edits before that date.

Whenever a page is changed, the person who made that change is expected to leave a summary sentence about the amendment. Some of my early ones include:

  • ‘Removed Stub status, since there is sufficient material regarding this song.’, for the Ben Folds Five track Brick.
  • ‘Corrected spelling of Kaiser Chiefs.’
  • ‘Added Differences from the book section.’ about the BBC series Hotel Babylon.
  • ‘Removed Young Lochee Fleet vandalism.’ after a page was maliciously edited.
  • ‘Made page into a disambiguation page, since the two Dairyleas are separate entities.’ for two companies that have the same name.

I even created a complex word association game called Word Before Last that is no longer popular, but is still a live page. Other users have not only continued the game, but even created extra branches and expanded the rules for clarity. There is robust documentation behind the scenes about the changes made at each stage.

For the last ten years, I’ve been working in jobs where I’ve been required to write reports. Looking back, those Wikipedia contributions offered vital practice in writing summaries of my findings. It’s a difficult skill to teach, but the main question to answer is, ‘What can be removed while still conveying the same message?’

It might sound strange, but that same principle of summary also works for poetry. This morning, the humourist Brian Bilston published a very short verse about a duvet.

He could quite easily have written many more lines about wanting to stay in bed because it was comfortable. In just four lines, however, he encapsulates his thoughts, and there is an effective implication of the comfort without needing to spell it out.

The Plot Summary and the Log Line

When submitting work to a publisher, the writer is often required to summarise the piece, especially if it’s a long-from work. This is one of the most difficult post-production activities, as it can involve removing tone and nuance from the piece, leaving just the key plot points.

Here are the two main types of summary that might be expected.

The plot summary

This type is most associated with novels. The publisher will ask for around 500 words to summarise the entire plot, even if that novel is 100,000 words long.

This means focussing on only the main characters and the key story points, however interesting the side plots might be. There is no sure-fire method of making the process simple, but one tip is to divide the number of words by the number of chapters and apportion the summary accordingly. To make it flow better, the ratio can then be changed once the summary is written.

Note that ‘entire plot’ means just that, and it should include details of how it ends, not a teaser.


Log line

This type of summary is most associated with screenplays.

It’s one or two sentences long, but never three, and acts as a teaser that gives the premise but not the ending. It’s also customary that characters are mentioned only by role, not by name.

There are some good examples at Masterclass.com, including one from Titanic:

Two star-crossed lovers fall in love on the maiden voyage of the Titanic and struggle to survive as the doomed ship sinks into the Atlantic Ocean.

Here, you can see the protagonists (the lovers), the setting (the ship) and the inciting incident (the sinking), but not the ending nor how the protagonists reach it.


Remember that a publisher might form their first impression of your project on a summary or a log line, so it’s worth giving it as much attention as the work itself.