Paraphrase and Summary

Learning Objective

  • Differentiate among paraphrase, summary, and quotation

There are two ways of integrating source material into your writing other than directly quoting from it: paraphrase and summary. Let’s talk about how to define and identify each method.

What Does Paraphrase Look Like?

Consider the following passage by Thoreau:

Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market.

Paraphrases should begin by making it clear that the information to come is from your source. If you are using MLA format, you should include the author’s last name and the page number of the paraphrased content in a parenthetical citation.

To paraphrase the passage above, you might begin as follows:

Even though Thoreau praised the virtues of the intellectual life, he did not consider… (Thoreau 100).

Paraphrases may sometimes include brief quotations, but most of the paraphrase should be in your own words.

What might a paraphrase of the Thoreau passage look like? Below is one way a writer might paraphrase it:

In his text, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau points to the incongruity of free men becoming enslaved and limited by constant labor and worry. Using the metaphor of a fruit to represent the pleasures of a thoughtful life, Thoreau suggests that men have become so traumatized by constant labor that their hands—as representative of their minds—have become unable to pick the “finer fruits” available to a less burdened life even when that fruit becomes available to them (110).

Note that the paragraph above is almost exactly the same length as the original. It’s also important to note that the paraphrased passage has a different structure and significant changes in wording. The main ideas are the same, but the student has paraphrased effectively by putting the information into her own words.

What are the benefits of paraphrasing? The paraphrase accomplishes three goals:

  1. Like the summary, it contextualizes the information (who said it, when, and where).
  2. It restates all the supporting points used by Thoreau to develop the idea that man is hurt by focusing too much on labor.
  3. The writer uses his or her own words for most of the paraphrase, allowing the writer to maintain a strong voice while sharing important information from the source.

Paraphrasing is likely the most common way you will integrate your source information. Quoting should be minimal in most research papers. Paraphrasing allows you to integrate sources without losing your voice as a writer to those sources. Paraphrasing can be tricky, however. You really have to make changes to the wording. Changing a few words here and there doesn’t count as a paraphrase, and including exact phrases from the source without putting them in quotation marks can get you into trouble with plagiarism.

do I get this?

Paraphrasing is a skill that takes time to develop. One way of becoming familiar with paraphrasing is by examining successful and unsuccessful attempts at paraphrasing. Read the quote below from page 179 of Howard Gardner’s book titled Multiple Intelligences and then examine the two attempts at paraphrasing that follow.

“America today has veered too far in the direction of formal testing without adequate consideration of the costs and limitations of an exclusive emphasis on that approach.”[1]

What Does Summary Look Like?

Summarizing involves condensing the main idea of a source into a much shorter overview. A summary outlines a source’s most important points and general position. When summarizing a source, it is a good idea to use a citation to give credit to the original author. You should reference the author or source in the appropriate citation method at the end of the summary.

How to Construct a Summary

  • Decide what part of the source is most relevant to your argument.
  • Pick out the most important sentences in that part of the source. In most cases, you’ll focus on the main points.
  • Paraphrase those sentences. If they include any important or memorable phrases, quote those in your paraphrases. List the paraphrased sentences in the order they occur in the original.
  • Add any other information that readers might need to understand how your paraphrased sentences connect to one another.
  • Revise the list so that it reads not like a list but like a paragraph.

How to Mix Quotation with Summary

A long summary can make readers feel that you and they are too distant from an important source. So when you write a summary as long as half a page, look for memorable phrases that you can quote within your summary.

“Colomb and Williams emphasize that drafting is “an act of discovery” that can fuel a writer’s creative thinking. They acknowledge that some writers have to draft carefully and stick closely to their outlines, but they advise writers to draft as freely and as openly as they can. They encourage even slow and careful drafters to be open to new ideas and surprises and not to be limited by what they do before drafting. They still stress the value of steady work that follows a plan: for example, writing a little bit every day rather than all at once “in a fit of desperate inspiration.” But they show writers how to make the best of a plan while hoping that you will “discover what your storyboard has missed.”[2]

When you add a few quotations to your summary, you seem a more lively writer. You give readers an idea of your source without quoting so much that your paper reads like a cut-and-paste job. If you have pages that are mostly summary and paraphrase, add a few notable quotations that will liven up your writing.

  1. Gardner, Howard. Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice. BasicBooks, 2006
  2. Kate L. Turabian. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Seventh Edition : Chicago Style for Students and Researchers. Revised by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff. (University of Chicago Press, 2007), 83-7.