Quoting vs. Paraphrasing vs. Summarizing

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Published September 2, 2020. Updated November 10, 2020.

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If you’ve ever written a research essay, you know the struggle is real. Should you use a direct quote? Should you put it in your own words? And how is summarizing different from paraphrasing—aren’t they kind of the same thing?

Knowing how you should include your source takes some finesse, and knowing when to quote directly, paraphrase, or summarize can make or break your argument. Let’s take a look at the nuances among these three ways of using an outside source in an essay.

What is quoting?

The concept of quoting is pretty straightforward. If you use quotation marks, you must use precisely the same words as the original, even if the language is vulgar or the grammar is incorrect. In fact, when scholars quote writers with bad grammar, they may correct it by using typographical notes [like this] to show readers they have made a change.

Example:

“I never like[d] peas as a child.”

Conversely, if a passage with odd or incorrect language is quoted as is, the note [sic] may be used to show that no changes were made to the original language despite any errors.

Example:

“I never like [sic] peas as a child.”

The professional world looks very seriously on quotations. You cannot change a single comma or letter without documentation when you quote a source. Not only that, but the quote must be accompanied by an attribution, commonly called a citation. A misquote or failure to cite can be considered plagiarism.

When writing an academic paper, scholars must use in-text citations in parentheses followed by a complete entry on a references page. When you quote someone using MLA format, for example, it might look like this:

“The orphan is above all a character out of place, forced to make his or her own home in the world. The novel itself grew up as a genre representing the efforts of an ordinary individual to navigate his or her way through the trials of life. The orphan is therefore an essentially novelistic character, set loose from established conventions to face a world of endless possibilities (and dangers)” (Mullan).

This quote is from www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/orphans-in-fiction, which discusses the portrayal of orphans in Victorian English literature. The citation as it would look on the references page (called Works Cited in MLA) is available at the end of this guide.

persone quotingWhat is paraphrasing?

Paraphrasing means taking a quote and putting it in your own words.

You translate what another writer has said into terms both you and your reader can more easily understand. Unlike summarizing, which focuses on the big picture, paraphrasing is involved with single lines or passages. Paraphrasing means you should focus only on segments of a text.

Paraphrasing is a way for you to start processing the information from your source. When you take a quote and put it into your own words, you are already working to better understand, and better explain, the information.

The more you can change the quote without changing the original meaning, the better. How can you make significant changes to a text without changing the meaning?

Here are a few paraphrasing techniques:

  • Use synonyms of words
  • Change the order of words
  • Change the order of clauses in the sentences
  • Move sentences around in a section
  • Make grammatical changes, such as:
    • Word form
    • Active – passive
    • Positive – negative
    • Statement-question

Let’s look at an example. Here is a direct quote from the article on orphans in Victorian literature:

“It is no accident that the most famous character in recent fiction – Harry Potter – is an orphan. The child wizard’s adventures are premised on the death of his parents and the responsibilities that he must therefore assume. If we look to classic children’s fiction we find a host of orphans” (Mullan).

Here is a possible paraphrase:

It’s not a mistake that a well-known protagonist in current fiction is an orphan: Harry Potter. His quests are due to his parents dying and tasks that he is now obligated to complete. You will see that orphans are common protagonists if you look at other classic fiction (Mullan).

What differences do you spot? There are synonyms. A few words were moved around. A few clauses were moved around. But do you see that the basic structure is very similar?

This kind of paraphrase might be flagged by a plagiarism checker. Don’t paraphrase like that.

Here is a better example:

What is the most well-known fact about beloved character, Harry Potter? That he’s an orphan – “the boy who lived”. In fact, it is only because his parents died that he was thrust into his hero’s journey. Throughout classic children’s literature, you’ll find many orphans as protagonists (Mullan).

Do you see that this paraphrase has more differences? The basic information is there, but the structure is quite different.

When you paraphrase, you are making choices: of how to restructure information, of how to organize and prioritize it.  These choices reflect your voice in a way a direct quote cannot, since a direct quote is, by definition, someone else’s voice.

persone quotingWhich is better: Quoting or paraphrasing?

Although the purpose of both quoting and paraphrasing is to introduce the ideas of an external source, they are used for different reasons. It’s not that one is better than the other, but rather that quoting suits some purposes better, while paraphrasing is more suitable for others.

A direct quote is better when you feel the writer made the point perfectly and there is no reason to change a thing. If the writer has a strong voice and you want to preserve that, use a direct quote.

For example, no one should ever try to paraphrase John. F. Kenney’s famous line: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

However, think of direct quotes like a hot pepper: go ahead and sprinkle them around to add some spice to your paper, but… you might not want to overdo it.

Conversely, paraphrasing is useful when you want to bring in a longer section of a source into your piece, but you don’t have room for the full passage. A paraphrase doesn’t simplify the passage to an extreme level, like a summary would. Rather, it condenses the section of text into something more useful for your essay. It’s also appropriate to paraphrase when there are sentences within a passage that you want to leave out.

If you were to paraphrase the section of the article about Victorian orphans mentioned earlier, you might write something like this:

Considering the development of the novel, which portrayed everyday people making their way through life, using an orphan as a protagonist was effective. Orphans are characters that, by definition, need to find their way alone. The author can let the protagonist venture out into the world where the anything, good or bad, might happen (Mullan).

You’ll notice a couple of things here. One, there are no quotation marks, but there is still an in-text citation (the name in parentheses). A paraphrase lacks quotation marks because you aren’t directly quoting, but it still needs a citation because you are using a specific segment of the text. It is still someone else’s original idea and must be cited.

Secondly, if you look at the original quote, you’ll see that five lines of text are condensed into four and a half lines. Everything the author used has been changed.

A single paragraph of text has been explained in different words—which is the heart of paraphrasing.

SummarizingWhat is summarizing?

Next, we come to summarizing. Summarizing is on a much larger scale than quoting or paraphrasing. While similar to paraphrasing in that you use your own words, a summary’s primary focus is on translating the main idea of an entire document or long section.

Summaries are useful because they allow you to mention entire chapters or articles—or longer works—in only a few sentences. However, summaries can be longer and more in-depth. They can actually include quotes and paraphrases. Keep in mind, though, that since a summary condenses information, look for the main points. Don’t include a lot of details in a summary.

In literary analysis essays, it is useful to include one body paragraph that summarizes the work you’re writing about. It might be helpful to quote or paraphrase specific lines that contribute to the main themes of such a work. Here is an example summarizing the article on orphans in Victorian literature:

In John Mullan’s article “Orphans in Fiction” on bl.uk.com, he reviews the use of orphans as protagonists in 19th century Victorian literature. Mullan argues that orphans, without family attachments, are effective characters that can be “unleashed to discover the world.” This discovery process often leads orphans to expose dangerous aspects of society, while maintaining their innocence. As an example, Mullan examines how many female orphans wind up as governesses, demonstrating the usefulness of a main character that is obligated to find their own way.

This summary includes the main ideas of the article, one paraphrase, and one direct quote. A ten-paragraph article is summarized into one single paragraph.

As for giving source credit, since the author’s name and title of the source are stated at the beginning of the summary paragraph, you don’t need an in-text citation.

How do I know which one to use?

The fact is that writers use these three reference types (quoting, paraphrasing, summarizing) interchangeably. The key is to pay attention to your argument development. At some points, you will want concrete, firm evidence. Quotes are perfect for this.

At other times, you will want general support for an argument, but the text that includes such support is long-winded. A paraphrase is appropriate in this case.

Finally, sometimes you may need to mention an entire book or article because it is so full of evidence to support your points. In these cases, it is wise to take a few sentences or even a full paragraph to summarize the source.

No matter which type you use, you always need to cite your source on a References or Works Cited page at the end of the document. The MLA works cited entry for the text we’ve been using today looks like this:

Mullan, John. Orphans in Fiction” www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/orphans-in-fiction. Accessed 20. Oct. 2020

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See our related lesson with video: How to Quote and Paraphrase Evidence


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