This resource looks at what a synopsis is, how it is structured, and how to write one. Examples of different types of synopses are available in the Further resources section at the bottom of the page.

What is a synopsis?

A synopsis is a brief summary of a text, giving an overview of the main points or ideas. The text may be a journal article, book or report, but might also be a film or a play. You have probably come across examples of synopses (the plural of ‘synopsis’), or abstracts, at the beginning of academic journal articles when researching your assignments. If you have read these synopses, you’ll already know that a synopsis is a summary of the article, its arguments and conclusion. Consequently, a synopsis is very useful in helping you to decide if an article is relevant to your research, and whether it is worth reading. Another type of synopsis is the executive summary at the beginning of a report; it summarises the report’s key findings and recommendations.

At university, you may be asked to write a synopsis of someone else’s text, e.g. an academic article, or of your own text, e.g. essay or report. Occasionally, you may be asked to write and submit a synopsis before writing and submitting an essay or report. In this case the synopsis is intended to be a plan or outline for the report or essay.

What a synopsis isn’t

A synopsis isn’t an analysis or critique; nor is it a general discussion of a topic. It is a summary of the key points of a text, focusing on that text alone, and aiming to be as objective as possible.

The challenges

There are some challenges when writing a synopsis:

  • Separating the most important points from the detail
  • Focusing on the main points without losing the overall meaning
  • Rephrasing key points without changing the meaning. This is especially important if writing about someone else’s text, in order to avoid plagiarising.
  • Giving a good representation of the text within a limited word count

How to write a synopsis

Writing a synopsis of someone else’s text:

  • Read and reread the text until you understand it. There is no point trying to summarise something you don’t understand.
  • Without referring to the original, write a brief summary of its overall point or ‘thesis’ and the main ideas you can recall. Beginning with a short summary and building on it makes it easier to stay within the word count.
  • Return to the original to check for key points you may have missed and add them to your initial summary. Remove any detail that you think unnecessary.
  • Check you have written in clear and concise sentences and that your final synopsis accurately represents all of the main ideas.

Writing a synopsis of your own text:

  • A synopsis of your own text is a bit like a reverse outline; writing one is a good way to check that your main points are clear.
  • Start with a statement to give context. You should have done this in the introduction of your essay or report.
  • Clearly state the overall aim (if a report) or ‘thesis’ (if an essay).
  • Outline the key findings or key points made. Looking at topic sentences can help.
  • Summarise the main recommendations or the main conclusion.
  • Reread your text to check for key points you may have missed and add them to your summary. Remove any detail you think is unnecessary.
  • Check you have written in clear and concise sentences and that your final synopsis accurately represents all of the main ideas.

Synopsis structure

The structure of a synopsis usually follows that of the original text, and therefore will depend on the type of text you are summarising. For example, a synopsis of an essay will generally have an introductory sentence to give context, a thesis statement, a summary of the key arguments and a brief conclusion; a synopsis of a business report will give a brief orientation to the topic, the key findings and recommendations; a synopsis of a research report will summarise the aim, methods, key results and discussion, in that order.

Check your completed synopsis

Imagine you are the reader of your synopsis; how would you know whether you wanted to read the entire text? What would you want to know?

  • The overall idea
  • The key points that support that idea
  • The methods (where appropriate) and the main findings
  • The conclusion or recommendations

You would want

  • An objective account, not opinion
  • No unnecessary detail
  • Clear, concise writing