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Paraphrasing vs Summarizing

Summaries and paraphrases are some of your most useful tools as a writer. Referencing other people’s writing is often necessary if you want to provide evidence for your claims and imbue your essays with a greater sense of integrity. In other instances, referencing powerful ideas can simply enhance the quality of your writing. For example, using a quote in your introductory paragraph can “hook” the reader and get them interested.

You can reference other people’s writing in a number of different ways. Here are the most common options:

  • paraphrase
  • summarize
  • quote

Each of these options has its own set of various pros and cons. If you want to become an accomplished writer, you need to understand when to paraphrase, when to summarize, and when to quote.

Whether you’re paraphrasing, summarizing, or quoting, you need to make sure to properly acknowledge where these ideas are coming from or you risk committing plagiarism. It’s perfectly acceptable to reference other people’s work, as long as you give credit where it’s due.

When you understand the differences among paraphrasing, summarizing, and quoting, it becomes easier to write flowing, informative pieces that are free from plagiarism.

What is paraphrasing?

When you paraphrase someone else’s writing, you are presenting their ideas in your own words. An important part of paraphrasing is acknowledging whose ideas you are presenting and where they come from.

A paraphrased passage cannot be too similar to the source material. You can’t simply change one or two words and claim that you’re paraphrasing. Ideally, you should present these ideas in language that seems natural and easy for you and your readers to understand.

What is summarizing?

When you summarize someone else’s ideas, you are summing up their main points in a smaller piece of writing that the reader can easily understand.

Summaries are much shorter than the original material. For example, the summary of an entire book would not list every event that happens in the book. Rather, a book summary would review the most important moments in the plot and could be two or three pages long.

That being said, summaries can be even shorter than that. It’s possible to summarize an idea or a book in a single sentence.

When you summarize someone else’s work, it’s important to cover only the most important points. Just like paraphrasing or quoting, you must also attribute summarized ideas to the correct source.

What is quoting?

Quoting is when you write down the exact words of a writer and use quotation marks. You must attribute the correct speaker and source when quoting, and you must use the appropriate formatting guidelines laid out by your course or instructor.

Quoting may be preferable to other methods if you need to use clear evidence to back up your claims. By using the author’s exact words, you can show the accuracy of the evidence you’re using.

What is the difference between summarizing and paraphrasing?

The main differences between summarizing and paraphrasing come down to their functions.

A summary retells the main points, condensing an idea so that it is easier for the reader to digest. You can be selective when writing summaries, which means you don’t have to cover everything that the writer said. In addition, summaries are always shorter than the source material.

On the other hand, paraphrases serve to clarify a passage. Paraphrases are specific, which means that you need to cover each piece of information the writer is trying to convey.

In contrast to summaries, paraphrases don’t need to be shorter than the source material. While it’s true that a paraphrase might be condensed compared to the source material, it can also be longer than the source material. Alternatively, paraphrases can be roughly the same length as the source material.

How are summarizing and paraphrasing similar?

There are notable similarities between summaries and paraphrases. They both serve to make concepts easier to understand for the reader through slightly different methods. In addition, you should use both paraphrases and summaries when the core ideas of a passage are more important than the exact wording.

When should you paraphrase?

When you successfully paraphrase someone else’s ideas, you are showing the reader that you understand the key concepts. Unlike quoting, paraphrasing requires you to show what you think or understood about the idea.

You should paraphrase when you want to show that you’re capable of more than just copying and pasting. Only people who truly understand concepts can paraphrase them successfully. In other words, paraphrasing shows that you’re confident about the ideas you’re discussing.

Paraphrasing is also helpful when you’re in the middle of a speech and you can’t remember exactly what someone said. In this situation, you can’t really pause, take out a book, and look up the exact quote. Instead, you can start by saying something like, “Frederick Douglass once said something along the lines of…” and then finish by summing up the quote in your own words.

Finally, paraphrasing is a solid option when you want to reword a broader section of text into a more concise passage. You may choose to paraphrase when you encounter an idea that seems antiquated or inaccessible to the modern reader. By putting these ideas in your own words, you can make them relevant again.

When should you summarize?

Summaries are useful when you need a little more flexibility. You can spend an entire paragraph summarizing a concept or you can sum it up in a few sentences. Other summaries take the form of entire essays.

Summaries also allow you to cut right to the core concepts that the author was trying to convey. When you summarize a piece of writing, you can eliminate all the extra bits and pieces that aren’t really relevant or necessary. At the end of the day, summaries are all about condensing information so that you can refer to key points within the original passage.

Summaries are also handy when you’re providing your reader with background information on a topic. This might be especially helpful when you’re introducing a topic at the beginning of an essay.

Alternatively, you can quickly provide background information at any stage of your essay. For example, you might introduce a new piece of literature halfway through your writing, such as The Trial by Franz Kafka. At this point, you might find it necessary to sum up the plot of The Trial before moving on.

Essentially, you should use summaries when you want to condense information and cover the main points.

Summaries and paraphrases are usually preferable to direct quotes

Both summaries and paraphrases are usually preferable to direct quotes.

It’s all too easy to fill up your entire essay with quote after quote, but what purpose does that serve? Quotes only show that you’re able to copy and paste other people’s ideas, whereas summaries and paraphrases show that you actually understand these ideas enough to restructure them or condense them.

A page filled with direct quotes also becomes tiresome for the reader, especially if you become over-reliant on one source or author. When you use too many quotes, your writing tends to lose its flow, becoming jarring and difficult to follow.

Of course, quotes have their place in your writing. As previously mentioned, they allow you to provide strong evidence for your claims and give your writing a sense of authority. However, most instructors agree that quotes should be used sparingly. Think of quotes as your secret weapon, and only pull them out when you really need them.

Using paraphrases and summaries throughout your writing allows you to make use of various pieces of source material without relying too much on direct quotes. Add a mixture of quotes, paraphrases, and summaries into your writing, and you’ll see a drastic improvement in overall quality.

In closing

Remember, there is nothing wrong with borrowing other people’s ideas to strengthen the quality of your own writing. The best writers in the world don’t hesitate to paraphrase or summarize the works of other individuals, as they understand that human literature is a collaborative process.

Each new writer carries the torch a few steps further before passing their accomplishments to the next generation. There is no shame in using powerful ideas as a foundation from which to build upon.

Key takeaways

  • Summaries and paraphrases both serve to make source material easier to understand
  • You should use both summaries and paraphrases when the core ideas are more important than the exact wording
  • A summary is a condensed version of the source material that covers all the main points
  • When you paraphrase a passage, you put it in your own words and clarify its meaning
  • Direct quotes are useful when the exact wording is important
  • You can use direct quotes to provide more accurate evidence for your claims
  • Quotes imbue your writing with a sense of authority
  • You should paraphrase when you want to show that you understand the key ideas behind a passage
  • Paraphrasing allows you to make passages more relevant and accessible to your readers
  • The main purpose of a paraphrase is to clarify the text
  • Paraphrases can be longer, shorter, or the same length as the source passage
  • Summaries are always shorter than the source material
  • Summaries are selective whereas paraphrases are specific
  • Summaries allow you to eliminate unnecessary information from the source material
  • Summaries provide background information on a topic or idea
  • Both summaries and paraphrases are usually preferable to direct quotes
  • You should use direct quotes sparingly

Published October 29, 2020.

By Andy Block. Block has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in comparative literature. After teaching in Asia, Europe, and New York City, briefly, Andy taught writing at a community college for more than a decade — before transitioning to a new career in EdTech.

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