Most of the time, when you’re referring back to a previous conversation, text, or piece of media, you’re not recalling each part exactly as it happened—that would require a memory better than any of us probably have.
Instead, you’re going to be either paraphrasing what you heard or read, summarizing the information learned, or directly quoting pieces of what you remember.
Paraphrasing, summarizing, and quoting are all closely related actions, which can make them difficult to tell apart in certain circumstances.
Generously enough, we’re going to cover all of that for you: paraphrasing vs. summarizing, paraphrasing vs. quoting, and all of that good in between stuff. You’ll be an expert on these three activities by the time you reach the bottom of the page, or your hypothetical money back (that’s the QuillBot Blog guarantee!).
What is Paraphrasing?
When you paraphrase something, you are relaying the original information in your own words.
Typically, paraphrasing is done in order to use specific ideas from a cited source to back up an argument or hypothesis. It can also be used to show reading comprehension because, if you can’t easily restate a fact or idea in your own words, odds are you may not understand it fully yet.
Another important reason to paraphrase is to further clarify a statement or topic by rephrasing the information in a new way, perhaps for a different audience than originally intended. A good example of this would be when a scientist paraphrases a key conclusion from their work but utilizes language that school children or the general public would understand, rather than jargon from their field.
The paraphrase is usually around the same length as, or slightly shorter than, the original fact or idea. This is because the goal of paraphrasing isn’t to shorten but to restate in a new way.
You must always cite your sources when paraphrasing, at the single-thought/idea/fact level. That means, as you write a topic sentence in a research paper, each time you paraphrase and use a fact from another source, you add an in-text citation so that readers can follow up on that specific piece of the puzzle on their own.
Without citing your sources, you will be committing plagiarism, which is a very serious, punishable offense. When you don’t cite your sources, you are taking credit for the work of others, even if you don’t mean to.
Not citing can also hurt you in the long run because you won’t be able to easily go back and add to a section of your work if you don’t have the citations of where the supporting facts or ideas come from.
What is Summarizing?
A summary is a condensed version or synopsis of a work.
It contains all of the main points and ideas, usually presented in either paragraph or bullet point format. The key feature of any summary is brevity, and as such, summarizing is all about explaining the big picture in as few words as possible.
While paraphrasing is used to rephrase or clarify, summarizing is used to condense information.
No one likes a long summary. That means when you summarize the two-hour movie you saw to your friend, it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes; that’s the whole point of creating a summary. The details aren’t nearly as important as the main ideas.
Whatever you’re summarizing, you must also cite the source text if you are going to submit or publish your work. Citing for yourself is especially helpful with summaries, even if you don’t plan to turn in your work or post it online, because if you ever want to follow up on that information, you will be able to see every reference you used to create that summary.
What is Quoting?
To quote something is to state it exactly how it was originally presented, using quotation marks when written.
When you directly quote, you don’t have any freedom to alter the reference from its original state, unless you explicitly make that clear in the quote. To accomplish this, writers use brackets to add in a word or two for clarity, change verb tense, or show a change in letter capitalization.
Ellipses (...) can be used to show that some of the quote was removed to cut out irrelevant information or that the quote continues beyond the direct quote shown.
Example Original Quote: “I had hoped it [the festival] would be a huge success this year to commemorate the city’s 100th anniversary. We started organizing the festival over 6 months in advance, with plans for a weekend-long event that would include a dance on Friday, parade on Saturday morning, and would conclude with the city’s annual Community Appreciation Event taking place on Sunday night. During the day on Saturday and Sunday, we organized bands, games, cooking challenges, and other family-focused events to bring everyone [the Farmingdale community] together in celebration. On the weekend of the festival, however, rain and near-freezing temperatures canceled most of our outdoor events, though the dance and Community Appreciation Event both went off without a hitch—and we are very grateful for that!”
Example Quote with Ellipses and Brackets: “I had hoped it [the festival] would be a huge success this year to commemorate the city’s 100th anniversary. …[H]owever, rain and near-freezing temperatures canceled most of our outdoor events, though the dance and Community Appreciation Event both went off without a hitch...”
Quoting is all about staying true to the source, so any gratuitous change is unacceptable. Even when using brackets to slightly alter a quote for inclusion in a project, you have to be careful that each change is documented with brackets or ellipses.
Also, keep in mind that any info added within brackets for clarity must be absolutely relevant and in no way alter the quote’s meaning.
When quoting, you must cite the original source━there are no exceptions when it comes to this rule, whether you use in-text or parenthetical citations. Even if the quote is cited in another work, you must attribute the quote properly in your citation.
The Difference Between Paraphrasing and Summarizing
The main difference between paraphrasing and summarizing is the intent.
Paraphrasing isn’t meant to remove any information, only to rephrase it, while a summary purposely removes most details in order to hone in on the overall message and the most important ideas or conclusions.
Another difference is that paraphrases will generally be around the same length as the referenced fact or idea, which itself is usually only a sentence or two long. In contrast, a summary is purposely shorter—usually way shorter—than the source material, and there is a much higher volume of information that goes into a summary than does a paraphrase.
You might summarize an entire blog post into a paragraph or two covering the gist, main points, and conclusions.
Or, you might look at one of the conclusions from the blog post and think it would be a great supporting element for a paper you are writing. If you decide to cite the post and paraphrase the information about a specific conclusion, you will only be working with a sentence or so, not a whole article.
At their most basic, paraphrasing and summarizing are both actions where you explain someone else’s work in your own way. This is why, in some cases, it can be hard to know when to employ each one. Let’s take a look at when and why you should paraphrase vs. summarize.
When Should You Paraphrase?
If you’re trying to debate between summarizing or paraphrasing something, consider three things:
- The level of detail you’re trying to get across. If you want to make sure your audience understands specific parts of an event with extreme detail throughout, you’re better off with a paraphrase. If you want to share only the main takeaways, go the summary route.
- The audience you’re writing for. If you’re reading a dense white paper or other specialized report and want to relay one of the important points, you should think about your audience. You might be an expert, but if others aren’t, paraphrasing the information in a way that is less technical and more accessible is the way to go.
- Your understanding of the cited work. Try to recast whatever fact or other piece of information you’re citing in your own words, without losing any of the detail or meaning. If you can, that’s a good indication that you get it.
However, if you find yourself adding big-picture elements that shouldn’t be a part of the paraphrase, you may want to revisit the source to get clarity. Adding in information from other parts of a text to a specific paraphrase of a single idea pushes you into summarization territory.
When Should You Summarize?
Summarizing is great for when you want to quickly convey the main points of a text or piece of media. Here are three instances where summarization would be better than paraphrasing:
- When providing a synopsis of a work. The work can be a book, article, movie, or piece of other various media, and the summary would be used to present only the highlights, with very little detail. Summaries are better for when you want to talk about the big picture, rather than a single discrete fact or idea.
- When compiling notes. When you’re writing notes for a class or project, you’re not transcribing each source word-for-word (and if you are, then it’s a good thing you’re reading this article). Instead, you take the most important points from each source to use for research and study purposes.
- When checking reading comprehension. Most writing doesn’t come out and say, “Here is the message and meaning behind what we’re writing.” To find this information, you must read between the lines and understand the text as a whole on a fundamental level.
If you can summarize what you’re reading, you’re ensuring that you understand the message and themes of the text, what that means in a greater context, and why it is important.
The Difference Between Paraphrasing and Quoting
Paraphrasing and quoting are essentially opposites.
When you paraphrase a text, you are restating it in your own words, for your own purposes. But, when you quote a text, you are writing it word for word—the exact way in which it was originally presented.
Paraphrasing is using your own words to describe something someone else has said or written, while quoting preserves the original verbatim.
Paraphrasing and quoting can be confused by writers of all levels, but this can most often be attributed to not citing the original source correctly. Both paraphrases and quotes require citations, whether or not the paraphrase is very different from the original. When a quote isn’t cited, readers may assume it’s your original thought or that it’s a paraphrase, which is where the confusion comes in.
If either a quote or paraphrase is not cited properly, it is considered plagiarism.
When Should You Paraphrase?
Paraphrasing is done when you want to use specific information from a cited source but don’t necessarily want to quote it directly.
There are three main reasons to do this:
- You want to stress a certain idea. Explaining things in different ways is helpful because everyone learns in different ways. Depending on your audience, they might need a source rephrased for it to resonate with them on their level of understanding. Using different words and/or contexts to stress an idea or topic can really hammer home the intent of the text.
- The quote isn’t helpful. From the Federalist Papers to the writings of Aristotle, some of humanity’s best works are, well...hard to read. Many great thinkers worth referring to wrote in ancient languages, or versions of English that are no longer used today, so paraphrasing something in modern day speech can make things much more comprehensible and usable.
- Quotes aren’t allowed. If you’re writing in an academic, or otherwise professional, context, it may seem disingenuous for the bulk of your writing to be quotes from other people. Whatever the context, if quotes are not allowed or if you’ve already used several, paraphrasing is the way to go.
When Should You Quote?
When you need information literally straight from the source, then quote instead of paraphrasing. Here are a few instances where quoting makes more sense than paraphrasing:
- When you can’t say it better. If you can’t restate information from a quote as effectively for your audience and purposes, you should use a direct quote. If the quote works for you as is, then paraphrasing is not the move.
- When you want first-hand information. Quotes are great for first-hand accounts of events—in ways that a paraphrase just can’t compete with. For example, if you were writing a report on a famous battle, quotes from people who were there would make the presentation much more authentic, and show your audience what it was truly like to experience these events.
- When accuracy matters. Overall, quotes show your audience the most precise depiction of something, whether that is an opinion, recounting of events, or even a promise. They are perfect for use as evidence, either to support or oppose an argument, because there is no level of interpretation or reframing like there can be in a paraphrase.
Paraphrasing vs. Summarizing vs. Quoting Examples
Now that you have an idea for how to use these three writing actions, let’s take a look at some examples that showcase paraphrasing, summarizing, and quoting.
Example #1: Hamlet Act 3 Scene 1
“To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished!”
-Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1
To live, or to die? Is it more noble to suffer and deal with life’s pitfalls and disadvantages, or to end them and, subsequently, your life? To die is to sleep, and to end the heartache and shock that being alive brings upon us. To die is something to wish for.
Hamlet debates killing himself, weighing the pros and cons of being alive.
Example #2: Gettysburg Address, 1863
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this...”
-Abraham Lincoln, 1863
87 years ago, our founding fathers created this country on the basis that all men are created equal. Now our country is in a civil war, which is testing whether or not a country based on such a belief can survive. We are here to dedicate part of this battlefield that we are standing on to the soldiers who died so our country could continue on. It is something we must do.
Lincoln invokes the emotions of the nation by recounting what the country was founded on, and then goes on to dedicate land to the Civil War’s fallen soldiers.
Paraphrasing, summarizing, and quoting are three very different ways to process, assess, and incorporate information from other sources into your own work. While it can sometimes be tricky to know when to employ each action, you should be able to keep them straight with the help of this article and our examples.
Expert level: achieved.