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How to write a summary, and why

Footprints at Angkor Wat

The first text in most web and intranet pages should be a summary of 1-2 sentences. That's a good rule of thumb.

The starter-summary has several important functions.

  1. It is a smart way to show exactly what your page is about. The summary saves your readers time and annoyance: they don't need to search and scroll to find out whether this is the page they want.
  2. It helps you, the writer. Writing a summary helps to clarify your thinking. And if you cannot easily summarise or describe the page, that could be a sign that the page is unfocused or even redundant.
  3. If your web site or intranet has an internal search engine, the summary can double as the text people see in search results (after the page title). This is an opportunity to create a really useful search result.
  4. You can put the same summary in the description metatag for Altavista users to see.

Don't, don't, don't write a really useless summary

Don't waste the summary-slot by writing a general blurb or introduction or background. Cut to the chase. And write about the specific page, not the entire site.

So don't summarise a web page of job advertisements like this:

"ESL or English as a Second Language is a formal education for people who have a primary language other than English."

And don't start an intranet page about claiming

entertainment expenses like this:

"In our organisation, various business units have celebrated festive occasions in a wide range of ways. In the1950s, it was common to wear home-made brown-paper hats, and cucumber sandwiches were favoured."

Essentials of a jolly good summary

There's no universal formula for writing the perfect summary. The criteria are:

  • it must be a clear, simple guide to what is on the page
  • it must make sense as the first text on the page
  • it must make sense alone, if people read nothing else at all on the page
  • it must be useful in search results
  • it must be pretty short, say 1-3 sentences.

Four suggested approaches follow.

The executive summary-summary

You could write a true summary of the entire page's content. This is an executive summary, similar to the first sentence in a news story. Examples:

"Most United Arab Emirates employers require ESL staff with post-graduate degrees, pay above average salaries, require 22 contact hours per week and provide accommodation. ESL jobs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are listed on this page."
"Staff may celebrate the start of a public holiday in the office with drinks, gifts, fireworks or handshakes. Expense must be approved at least 10 working days in advance. A social event, not a religious event, is appropriate."

The key message-summary

This type of summary conveys the single most important message on the page. This is the one point that people must grasp, even if they read nothing else.


"Tell us your preferred country, your ideal start-date, and we will send you ESL/EFL jobs as soon as they are posted. Get into the Maze!"
"Organise your Christmas celebrations before 10 December, if you want your expenses refunded by the Social Club."

The description-summary

The page description is probably the easiest option for the writer, if slightly dull for the reader. It faintly resembles the abstract that precedes an academic article.


"This web page has useful links to other ESL-related sites with teaching ideas, employer ratings and job ads for ESL teaching abroad."
"This page gives guidelines for celebrating public holidays in the office."

The instructions-summary

Sometimes it's easiest to just say when and how the page should be used.


"Use this page to find ESL jobs in Asia, Europe, Africa, North America and South America. Search ESL job listings by country and region. "
"Managers should use this procedure when purchasing food and drink for parties in the office."

Easy, ay?

The summary is all part of the plan to structure every web or intranet page for easy reading and great search results. Your summary is the reader's second chance (after the headline) to get the point of the page.

© Rachel McAlpine Trust January 2005


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