Five: Summarizing And Paraphrasing

Most people have some experience with expository writing before coming to college.

Almost everyone has jotted down a journal entry or written a set of how-to instructions. With the popularity of social media, we’ve all indulged in the occasional diatribe or Facebook rant. The key difference between this basic style of narrative writing and the kind of writing you’ll do in English 101 lies in the way you as a writer engage with and reference the world around you.

Learning to write persuasive arguments and research papers—two of the most common paper prompts in college—involves engaging with sources. To become an effective writer, you must learn to participate in a conversation with the other writers who have studied the topics on which you write. This level of fluid conversation can only come from a deep understanding of the texts you reference.

In the previous lesson, we learned why taking good notes is important. In this lesson, we’ll take those notes a step further and learn how to begin analyzing source texts in order to incorporate them into our own writing, thereby joining the critical conversation. The first step to this deeper analysis lies in the effective use of summarizing and paraphrasing strategies.

The Difference Between Summarizing and Paraphrasing

It’s true that summarizing and paraphrasing are closely related. I often found students had trouble distinguishing between the two forms. Here are two quick tips to help elucidate the difference between summarizing and paraphrasing:

  1. Summarizing usually results in a shorter version of the original text, whereas a paraphrased passage can often be longer than the original.
  2. Summarized passages highlight the key points of the original, but they do not attempt to relate every point the author makes. On the other hand, in a paraphrased passage, the details of the original text are carefully outlined and the goal is to remain as true to the original message as possible.

The difference between summarizing and paraphrasing is a little bit like the difference between telling a story you once heard and translating that story into a new language. When you tell the story you want to hit the highlights, but when you translate it to a new language you want to be very careful not to alter the meaning in any way.

Put another way: when covering a musician’s song, you could try to play it exactly like the original and only change your own voice, or you could keep the basic structure of the song but make the performance your own. The former is like paraphrasing and the latter is like summarizing.

How to Summarize

A good summary takes note of all the key points of the original text. Read the text through once and take notes according to the steps in Lesson 4. Jot down key quotes and pay special attention to topic sentences, as they will likely hold clues about the author’s main points.

Next, read back through the text a second time and try to boil each paragraph down to one main idea. It might even be helpful to write a single sentence in your notes for each paragraph in the original text. At the very least, each page or section should have a sentence or two that explains, or summarizes the content of the passage.

When you finish, you should have good list of topic sentences that outline the general argument of the piece. In a summary, there’s no need to go into great detail on any one point—just hit the highlights as a whole. If I read your summary, I should have a general idea of what the original text says, but I likely won’t know all of the nitty gritty details of the argument.

How to Paraphrase

Unlike a summary, a paraphrase should give your reader a very good idea of the entire message conveyed in the original text. The parts you would gloss over in a summary should be included in a paraphrase. You want to be very careful not to alter the author’s exact argument or misrepresent him any way.

This commitment to textual verity can be tricky when you translate the words of the original author into your own. The two most common mistakes made by novice paraphrasers are:

  1. Accidentally altering the original meaning by translating too loosely or leaving out key points.
  2. Plagiarizing the original author by not crediting her for direct (or slightly altered) quotes you include in your paraphrase.

In both summarizing and paraphrasing it’s crucial to always credit the original author when you use his words or ideas. It’s okay to quote the author occasionally in either of these forms. Just be sure to note when you do so in order to avoid plagiarism.

Again, paraphrasing a text often results in even more words than were found in the original text. The easiest way to describe paraphrasing is the act of rewriting a text in different words while remaining absolutely faithful to the argument of the original.

Further Study on Summarizing and Paraphrasing

It’s necessary to learn the difference between summarizing and paraphrasing and how to do them both because this important stage in the writing process bridges the gap between taking notes and incorporating those notes into a paper as critical support for your argument.

Most of the papers you’ll write in college and beyond will require you to engage with critical sources and include them in your papers seamlessly. The first step to doing this successfully involves understanding the text deeply and recognizing the author’s main points so you can join the conversation intelligently.

Later, in Lesson 7 and Lesson 8, we’ll discuss how to use these summaries and paraphrases to select good quotes which you will then incorporate smoothly into your own arguments.

When you’re ready, move on to Lesson 6:  Introductions & Conclusions, or check out our Resource page for teachers and students.