Summary Writing: Identifying Important Ideas

We will attempt to identify the main ideas. We will consider each sentence to identify what is important. The next Language post will cover identifying what is relevant.

Finding the Main Idea

In extracts of more than one paragraph, each paragraph contains one main or important idea, sometimes expressed in more than one of the sentences, which is then supported or developed by the other sentences. When it does exist in the paragraph, the sentence that best expresses the main idea in the paragraph is sometimes called the ‘main’ or ‘topic’ sentence.

Language Table

When you consider each paragraph, then, you are looking to distinguish between main and subordinate; in other words, to distinguish major from minor or the general from the specific. You will also be looking to see what is stated as opposed to what is implied.

Cue Words and Phrases

Cue words and phrases can help you to understand the meaning of sentences and how they function. These are the words which writers use to signal the way in which you should interpret what is to follow.  For example, if a writer begins a sentence with strangely enough, he wants you to interpret what follows as strange or unusual. These words can appear at any position during the sentence.


Some punctuation marks perform the same function as cue words and phrases. Here are some and their general intended function:

  • The question mark: at its most obvious it signals that an answer is required, or that an answer is soon to be given in the extract. However there is the rhetorical question which typically requires no answer as the answer is inherent in the question.
  • The comma: can be used when the writer wants to single out a particular word or phrase.
  • The colon: of the many signals, two of the most important are to introduce a statement which explains, enlarges; or summarises the one that precedes it and the indication of a contrast to be emphasised.
  • The dash: two important signals are, to mark off a statement in parenthesis which either expands upon the previous statement or provides an example of what is stated in the previous statement; or to indicate an abrupt change in the structure of a sentence.
  • The exclamation mark: usually indicates a high degree of surprise, disbelief, indignation or other strong emotion.
  • Ellipsis: this usually indicates that words are omitted. Sometimes, however, it is used to create expectation or suspense by delaying what the writer has to say.

This list and the ways in which the punctuation marks are used is not exhaustive.

Source: Writing Summaries and Statistical Reports, Paul H. King

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