Behind the Scenes of a Summary-Writing Class

SUMMARY-WRITING is the bane of many a student. It’s the high-stakes, high weightage section that has a way of upsetting your total score for Paper 2, the comprehension section of the ‘O’ Levels exam—especially if the skill of synopsis isn’t your forte.

It used to be that students had to produce 150-word summaries gleaned from four to five substantial paragraphs worth of text. That changed in 2013, for better or worse, when the wordcount got slashed by almost half to 80 in tandem with the mark allocation, from 25 to 15. That meant too that the eyes didn’t have to travel up and down four or five paragraphs, but merely two.

The math is now stacked in your favor. It’s like moving ten eggs away from one single basket. You spread the risk elsewhere, where a handful of trickier, tougher, one-, two-mark questions await—their literature-styled inquiry gnaw at your brains, ready to spit the risk back at you, rather than absorb it. The eggs in the summary basket may have been reduced, but its degree of difficulty hasn’t necessarily diluted, so what can you do differently? Nothing really, just keep the same approach.

And what is the “same” in my book?

First, you draw up a swift grid of 80 boxes: vertical lines to form ten columns across your foolscap, and one bold line through the bottom of the eighth row. (If there’s not foolscap, work your draft on the back of your exam booklet.) Above the grid, you scribble the given lead-in line (usually ten words). Below the grid—give yourself a two- to three-line spacing—you’ll capture the key points (in shorthand, no need for pretty sentences). Whatever you capture here is draft work, so you do have to transfer your scribbles into your answer sheet.

Now, you’ll probably go, Wait a minute! Isn’t that extra work, all that drafting, all that rewriting? Wouldn’t the smartest, quickest way be to highlight the points in the text, then translate them directly into the answer sheet by rewording them as you go?

I know what you mean, but here’s the downside of that approach:

  1. You force your eyes to swim in the clusters of lines and words—the very ones you want to free yourself from in the first place so that your mind can (i) register the key points crisply, (ii) focus on rewording, using your own words as far as possible, as they say
  2. You have no disciplined way to keep tab of the number of words you’ve exhausted for each point. Chances are, with this method, you’d go top-heavy and run the risk of not having sufficient words for your last one or two critical points.
  3. You end up spending more time counting, recounting words, instead of focusing your energies on doing the summary, i.e. (i) identifying the key points, and (ii) recasting them in your own words

And what’s the upside?

  1. You capture all the key facts in clear, numbered points—some of them with related sub-bullets, some not. This way, your eyes aren’t mired in a mass of text that can crowd your thinking. What you see, instead, is a logical outline of the writing process. Main points/sub-bullets, superordinate/subordinate, versus a series of eight distinct, homogenous points—which is exactly what’s conveyed when a teacher tells you, “I need to see eight different points.”
  2. You can size up, right from the start, the number of words for each point. More words for fatter, fuller points; lesser for leaner ones.
  3. You can monitor your wordcount as you go, moving adroitly from one point to the next. If you overshoot your word allocation for one point, just go stingy on the next, collapsing sub-bullets for tightness, deploying commas, or dreaming up hyphenated adjectives (which always count as one word no matter how many hyphens there are).
  4. You have the flexibility to edit, cut or add, and still be on top of your wordcount status. Insert five words in the second sentence, say, and you’d cross out five boxes at the end; cross out three words somewhere in the middle, and you add three more boxes. (That’s why you make provision for the two- to three-line space below the grid).

Try out the grid, take it out for a few practice runs on the Ten-Year Series, and see how it goes. If anything, I promise it would enhance your comprehension skills, even your composition. What, after all, is the process of whittling down a passage of words to its essence, but the illumination of the writing process?

When you embark on an essay, don’t you start by drafting a mind-map of points, sequencing them, beginning-middle-end, and then building words around it? Expand, elaborate, as your teacher would say. Summary takes this process backwards. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how we don’t quite see that summary-writing is essentially an act of deconstructing, disassembling—a skill that shouldn’t be lost on us if we consider how, at every point in our lives, at school, and later at work, we have to apply the fine art of synopsis.

I also realize that as a student (or a parent), all you want to hear and see are tangibles. So here goes: I used the grid method three decades ago, and it served me well. OK, I scored an A2, not the tops, but I didn’t come away with mud either.

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We invite you to our summary-writing classes every 1st and 2nd Thursdays of the month, beginning in June. Click here for more details.

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