Periodically, you may find yourself submitting an abstract to a conference, a summary of your research to a grant committee, or a proposal to your advisor. In such cases, you are faced with a daunting proposition: how do you boil down your difficult, complex arguments to at most a few hundred words? What is your “elevator pitch” for your project? That is, how would you describe it to someone if you only had the length of a ride in an elevator? The question posed by this kind of summary is fundamentally one of Hierarchy: which of your claims is most important for your reader to understand?
In other entries, we focus on hierarchy in the sense of communicating the relationship between the various claims and Arguments in a piece of academic writing. But to talk about hierarchy in that way is to take a close-up view of a given piece of writing: to imagine a reader following along from paragraph to paragraph and needing to understand precisely how the parts of your argument add up to a whole. Here, however, we want to back up from the reader’s “close-up view” and consider your main contribution from a distance. When summarizing something complex, you are prioritizing what you see as its most essential characteristics. And when you share that kind of summary with your reader, you communicate something important about which of your claims, in broad strokes, matter the most.
Following the steps below, you can address these big-picture, bird’s-eye-view hierarchy questions and refine the hierarchy that informs your project as a whole.
Step 1: Begin by summarizing your project in one page. What is your central claim? What is necessary for the reader to understand it? How will you demonstrate it? What are its immediate corollaries? For the sake of a single page summary, worry less about convincing the reader than simply explaining your position and the parameters of your research. Is there a core empirical puzzle or relationship you explore? A theoretical concept you develop? An established piece of conventional wisdom you critique? How do you approach it?
Step 2: Now, summarize your project in one paragraph. Aim for a standard abstract word limit—let’s say 150 words—and think carefully about what absolutely needs to be said within those strictures. Hone down to that central claim, and what your project does to elaborate it.
Step 3: Finally, state your central claim in a single sentence. When you are given no additional space to clarify or support this claim, how and to what degree do you change the way you present it?
These steps can be helpful not just in developing workable summaries of your project, but in clarifying for yourself the relative importance of different claims within it. This can guide revisions by reinforcing what your central ideas are, what the reader absolutely must understand, so that you can catch passages where they begin to get lost.
Another use for this exercise is to summarize the work of others, particularly scholars whose work is important to your project. Capturing and articulating what another author’s most important claims are for your purposes can help guide how you summarize and frame the literature in your writing.
It may also be helpful to practice the summary exercise above in conjunction with “What’s My Main Point? Reverse Outlining as a Tool to Clarify Argument.”