6.2 Stand-alone Paragraphs


This section of Ch. 6 will cover the following topics:

  • summaries and evaluations
  • critical thinking
  • audience and tone

Often in college, you will be asked to write short responses, whether to a reading assignment or on an essay test.  An instructor will ask you to respond to a short story, explain the main points in a chapter from your text, or report back on a lab experiment.  Often these responses will be single paragraphs.  Two common types of stand-alone paragraphs are summaries and evaluations.

Summary Paragraphs

A summary is a significantly shortened version of another, longer piece.  A summary gives only a general sense of the information, capturing the main ideas, without necessarily following the order or emphasis of the original.  A summary is always written in your own words.

You probably summarize every day.  At some point in a casual conversation with a friend or classmate, you compressed a two-hour movie into a brief description.  You described the major highlights in a few sentences, using your own words.  That is a summary.

A summary will do the following:

  • maintain the meaning of the original
  • contain all the main points, without the supporting details
  • not include your opinion
  • use your words rather than those of the original writer

In writing a summary, you have to judge what is important and what isn’t.  The easiest way to do this is to “mark up” the document you want to summarize as you read–identifying the topic, the main supporting details, and any other significant points.  Those notes are easily turned into a summary.

Here is a one-paragraph summary of the essay “How to Mark a Book” by Mortimer Adler.  That essay was assigned to be read in Ch. 1.1, but you should re-read it again now, before you read the summary below (the link is in Ch. 8).

Mortimer J. Adler’s main point in the essay “How to Mark a Book” is that a reader must own a book, not just buy it.  He defines “ownership” as understanding the material, not simply scanning the page with one’s eyes.  Active reading, he says, involves marking up a book.  He provides examples of how he does this: underlining, starring, circling key words or phrases, numbering, writing in the margins.  If someone complains that writing notes slows down their reading, Adler explains that is the point: reading slowly and taking notes helps a reader understand and retain information.  His final comment is crucial to the idea of “owning”: he recommends that readers not lend their annotated books to friends because “it is almost like giving your mind away” (138).

Notice how the summary retains the key points of the original but omits many details.  The information has been paraphrased, avoiding Adler’s specific vocabulary.  Phrases like “prelude to possession” and “the soul of a book” belong to Adler.  Where a particularly well-written phrase is used, it is quoted and cited correctly.  Also, the summary does NOT include the writer’s opinion.

How to Write a Summary

  1. Carefully read the original document, making notes as you go.  You must fully understand something before you try to explain it to someone else.
  2. Then, put the original away.  This is crucial; if you glance at the original now and then, you will accidentally copy words or sentence structures.  Summarizing without referring to the original also forces you to understand the material before trying to explain it.
  3. Write a single sentence that explains the point of the piece.  Name the document and the author.  This is your topic sentence.
  4. Identify the several main ideas in the original.  (You may refer to your notes, but do not look at the original.)  Briefly explain each.  These are your supporting details.
  5. Read your summary to be sure it is clear and complete.  Check that you have not included your opinion; a summary explains but does not comment on the original.
  6. Add a concluding comment that refers to but does not repeat the topic sentence.
  7. Now, re-read the original to be sure you didn’t miss anything important.
  8. Revise and edit your paragraph for clarity and correctness.

Note that the example summary paragraph above on the Adler essay does all of these things.

A summary will be far shorter than the original.  It should include just enough information to recount the main points.  A summary of a paragraph should be one or two sentences. A summary of a chapter or an essay might be a paragraph or maybe two.  A summary of a whole book might be one or two pages.

It takes practice to be able to pull the essential information from a piece of writing, but there are many benefits to doing so.  And you will be asked to do this task again and again in college.

Exercise 1

Go to Ch. 8 and read the essay “The Maker’s Eye” by Donald Murray.  If possible, print the document so you can mark it up.  If you can’t do that, take good notes as you read.

Following the steps above, write a summary of the Murray essay.

Your summary should be a single paragraph (at least 150 words, but no more than 200).  Be sure your paragraph has a topic sentence, clear supporting points, and a concluding comment.

Revise and edit your paragraph for clarity and correctness.

Note:  This is a graded assignment, so be sure to submit your best work.  If you need help, schedule some time with our embedded tutor.

Evaluation Paragraphs

An evaluation judges the value of something and determines its worth.  Evaluations are based on set standards, influenced by opinion and prior knowledge.  At work, a supervisor may evaluate an employee based on how well he meets the company’s goals, but the evaluation also includes the supervisor’s opinion and prior experience of the employee.

In college, when a student expresses an opinion about a piece of writing or a topic, that evaluation should be based on specific criteria, careful reading, and any prior knowledge.

Following is an evaluation paragraph on the Adler essay:

Even though it was written in 1940, “How to Mark a Book” by Mortimer J. Adler is still relevant.  Many of his examples are outdated and even funny.  We can’t buy a book for less than a dollar these days.  Many people have never heard of a bookplate or an ice-box, let alone Rudy Vallee or John Dewey.  Hardly anyone reads Plutarch’s Lives.  But Adler’s notion of how learning happens hasn’t changed.  We still get to know books better by having a conversation with the writer.  Active reading is still promoted by educators because it is the best way to organize and retain complex information.  Taking notes still makes reading go more slowly, and reading quickly is still not better than reading carefully.  Even in the 21st century, when faster is supposedly better for everything from data to dating, Adler’s advice should be heeded.  If we want to really understand a problem, a person, or a piece of writing, we have to put in the time.

Notice how the paragraph incorporates the reader’s personal judgment.  Because an evaluation includes the writer’s point of view and reasons, it requires more critical thinking than a summary.

Critical Thinking

We know what “thinking” is.  The word “critical” can mean “crucial” or “potentially dangerous.”  To “be critical” often means to be disapproving.  But in college, “critical thinking” is neither negative nor life-threatening.  It simply means actively analyzing something (a poem, a piece of music, a political issue) using observation, reflection, and reason to draw a conclusion.

To engage in critical thinking, a student must be willing to do three things:

  • read carefully with the goal of fully understanding
  • use specific standards to measure the material
  • think reasonably, using previous experience and knowledge

How to Write an Evaluation

  1. Carefully read the original document, taking notes as you go.  In fact, reading the piece several times is a good idea.  You must fully understand it before you have a right to an opinion.
  2. Take 10 minutes to jot down your thoughts.  Start simply:  Did you like it?  Why or why not?  Then get more specific.  What did the writer do that was effective?  Were there any problems?  What observations did you make as you read?
  3. Identify several criteria for evaluation.  What makes the piece good or bad?  You might consider the way the piece was organized, or how well the writer supports her point, or whether the information was repetitive or the language evocative, whether the writer’s argument was logical or not.
  4. In one sentence, write your opinion.  Name the document and author in this sentence so we know what you are evaluating.  This is your topic sentence.
  5. Expand your point.  Provide examples from the original.  Use transitions to connect the ideas.  These are your supporting details.
  6. Wrap up with a final thought that reflects your point but doesn’t repeat things you’ve already said.  That is your concluding sentence.
  7. Re-read the original essay to be sure you didn’t miss anything important.

Notice that the example evaluation paragraph above on the Adler essay does all of these things.

Exercise 2

Re-read “The Maker’s Eye” by Donald Murray, then write an evaluation of his essay.

Important:  Do not just agree or disagree with his point.  Your job is to analyze and evaluate the quality of his writing.

An evaluation paragraph is your judgment, but it is not just your gut feeling.  A judgment should be based on sound reasoning, examples, and logic.  State your opinion in a clear topic sentence, use supporting details to explain your opinion, and wrap up your paragraph with an effective final point.

Your evaluation should be a single paragraph (at least 150 words but no more than 200 words).  Revise and edit your paragraph for clarity and correctness.

Note: This is a graded assignment, so submit an example of your best work.  If you need help, work with our embedded tutor.

Audience and Tone

Being aware of “invisible” readers is a skill you likely already possess.  Consider the following notes.  Which would the writer send to her parents?  Which would she send to her best friend?

Last Saturday, I volunteered at a local hospital. The visit was fun and rewarding. I even learned how to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR. Unfortunately, I think I caught a cold from one of the patients. I hope I am well by next Saturday to volunteer again.

OMG! You won’t believe this! My advisor forced me to do my community service hours at this hospital all weekend! We learned CPR but we did it on dummies, not even real peeps. And some kid sneezed on me and got me sick! I hope I don’t have to go back next week. I def do NOT want to miss the basketball game!

Most likely, you matched each note to its intended reader easily.

Just as speakers transmit emotion through voice, writers transmit a range of attitudes using sentence structure, punctuation, and word choice.  In the second example above, notice the writer uses slang (“OMG,” “peeps,” “def”), casual punctuation (!), and informal sentence structure (starting a sentence with “And”).  Those choices set a certain tone.

A writer’s tone should always match the audience and the purpose of the piece of writing.  The tone of college writing is slightly formal–not casual, but not stiff.   You should sound like yourself, but the way you would speak in a formal situation.


  • Common types of paragraphs in college include summaries and evaluations.
  • Summaries do not include your opinion; evaluations do.
  • Critical thinking means actively analyzing something using observation, reflection, and reason to draw a conclusion.
  • Writing must be appropriate in tone for the purpose of the document and the intended audience.


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