Paraphrasing vs. Summarizing vs. Quoting

Learning updated on  September 5, 2023 11 min read
Paraphrasing, summarizing, and quoting are all related actions in the writing and research world. Learn the difference between them with our examples.

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. A paraphrase is a piece of text that functions as a restatement of another text. The meaning is always the same, but the specific language changes (this often helps with comprehension).

Cartoon dogs paraphrasing
Close enough. (Source: CartoonStock)

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.

What is Summarizing?

A summary is a condensed version or synopsis of a work. It lists the main points or ideas of a written work, usually either presented in bullet point form or in a paragraph. 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.

Cartoon of two snails summarizing their lives
Get it? (Source: CartoonStock)

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. Your summary should be short.

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 the exact words from the original source, and quotation marks when written out. Therefore, a quote is a copy of a piece of text. The only difference between the two is that a quote has quotation marks.

cartoon of Edgar Allen Poe at his editor's desk
Methinks you can't quote "The Raven" too much. (Source: CartoonStock)

When you create direct quotations, 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.

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

chart comparing summarizing and paraphrasing
Source: Medium

The difference between paraphrasing and summarizing comes down to 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 paraphrased material will generally be around the same length as the original source material.

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. For example, you might summarize an entire blog post into a paragraph or two covering the gist, key points, and conclusions.

While the difference(s) between paraphrasing and summarizing may seem small, it's important that you know how to differentiate between the two and when to use each one (more on that later).

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 direct quotations 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 a few scenarios in which you'll want to paraphrase:

  1. Emphasizing a certain idea. Sometimes, in order to get a point across to your audience, it's helpful to reword what you're saying. 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.
  2. The quote you want to use 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.
  3. Quotes aren't allowed / You don't want to overuse quotations. 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.

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 a few scenarios for which you'll want to summarize:

  1. Providing a synopsis of a work. Whether it's a book, article, movie, or another piece of media, a summary of the key points presented within a text will provide a quick and useful guide to that source.
  2. Providing background information. Sometimes, a quote or fact will need to be backed up by a credible source in order for the audience to put trust behind it, especially with academic writing. Giving a quick overview of someone's background or the history of something will give your work more integrity.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. A summary will provide that subtext.

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.

When should you quote?

Quoting someone is done when you need information directly from the source in the exact way it was originally presented (plus quotation marks).

Here are a few instances that require quoting:

  1. Using the power of the author's words. Your own words don't always do the trick of emphasizing the point you're trying to make. Sometimes reading the author's ideas in their own words underlines their beliefs and emotions better than your own writing or paraphrase ever could.
  2. Sharing firsthand information. Quotes are great for immersing an audience in past events. This is especially helpful for historical essays and personal depictions, because quotes help to paint a more accurate picture of an event we do not have access to.
  3. Conveying accurate information. 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.
  4. Highlighting the beauty/eloquency/etc of a quote. Some sentences are too beautiful to try and replicate. Sharing is caring!

Tip: When you're quoting someone who is quoting something else, you'll use double quotation marks. The first set goes around your quote, and the second set goes around the quote within your quote.

Quoting Examples

The following are exact quotes taken directly from their respective sources.

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

Example #2: The 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

Paraphrasing Examples

The following are paraphrases of their respective source material.

Example #1: 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.

Example #2: The Gettysburg Address, 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.

As you can see, these paraphrases have roughly the same amount of information as the quotes they were created from.

Summarizing Examples

The following are summaries of their respective source material.

Example #1: Hamlet Act 3 Scene 1

Hamlet debates killing himself, weighing the pros and cons of being alive.

Example #2: The Gettysburg Address, 1863

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.

As you can see, the summaries of both the Hamlet and the Gettysburg Address excerpts are much, much shorter than either their original source quotes or their paraphrases. Summaries try to effectively communicate information as quickly as possible.

Final Thoughts on Paraphrasing vs. Summarizing vs. Quoting

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 and ideas.

Expert level: achieved.


Paige Pfeifer

Along with Emily Perry, PhD

Paige teaches QuillBot writers about grammar rules and writing conventions. She has a BA in English, which she received by reading and writing a lot of fiction. That is all she knows how to do.

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