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Summarizing and Paraphrasing

Summarizing and Paraphrasing

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson explains summarizing and paraphrasing and how to use them in an essay.

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Source: Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis, Trans. David Wyllie. Gutenberg eBook #5200, May 20, 2012. Kurtz, G., Brackett, L., Kasdan, L., Kershner, I., Lucas, G., Hamill, M., Ford, H., ... Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Inc. (2004). Star Wars: Episode V. United States: 20th Century Fox.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We're going to learn about summarizing and paraphrasing, two of the most effective ways writers can make use of their sources. Then we'll look at some examples.

Besides quoting directly, writers can also make use of their sources of information by summarizing and paraphrasing, two similar but distinct ways to represent another writer's ideas, points, and research in an essay. Like quoting, summarizing and paraphrasing are known as in-text citations, and require a parenthetical reference to indicate where they come from and how to find out more on the reference page.

Part of the value of these techniques is that they each keep the reader's focused on the writer's words and the interpretation of the source rather than presenting the words of that source directly. The biggest difference between the two is that the focus on summarizing is to distill the main ideas of a larger section of text or ideas from multiple sources. Whereas the goal of paraphrasing is to restate something in different words while retaining the original meaning and level of detail.

Mature writers are very selective about what quotes they use. Because they know it's only very rarely that the way another writer chose to phrase and present an idea or a point will exactly line up with the needs of their particular essay. So writers like that are much more likely to paraphrase or summarize the source's ideas or points. And in doing so, maintain control over their own writing process while demonstrating their own competence on the topic and emphasizing their own ideas.

Summarizing. The first of the two techniques we'll focus on is the act of expressing, in your own words, the key point or the thesis of a source. The purpose of it is generally to clarify another writer's thesis or key point in order to distinguish their ideas from your own, to demonstrate the depth of your research, and to show your awareness of the conversation around a topic, which enhances your credibility.

This is a valuable technique for writers for two main reasons. First, practicing summarization helps us learn to quickly distill a text's primary points and thesis. And in the essay itself, summarizing enables the writer to acknowledge other arguments without taking up a lot of time or space. It also allows writers to gather multiple sources together and summarise all their key points, ideas, or thesis statements that they have in common.

And like any other writing technique, there's an art and skill to summarizing effectively. Obviously, since every source is different, every summary will need to be performed in slightly different ways. But in general, it's a good idea to only summarise what's most important in a source.

That being said, we do need to be accurate while only summarizing what's most relevant or important to our own writing needs. And like any other aspect of writing, remember that summaries are yours to do with as you will. Use them in your text to better fulfill the needs of your project, or not at all.

Paraphrasing is similar to summarising in that it is stating another writer's ideas and points in your own words. We paraphrase in order to convey a source's ideas or points while keeping the reader's focused on our own words and ideas overall.

It's especially useful for improving clarity of the text as a whole and explaining our source's connection to our own argument. It's also useful for adding complexity to a direct quotation, either by restating a new word that the quotations said or by interpreting the quote. It's good for going into detail around the information surrounding a quote too.

Now we're going to look at some examples of sources and then make paraphrases and summaries of them so we can see the difference between the techniques and how they can be used in our own essays. The first source we'll look at comes from Franz Kafka. These are the opening paragraphs of his famous short story, Metamorphosis. Pause the video and take a moment to read it carefully. When you're finished, we'll practice summarising the selection and making a paraphrase out of a portion of it.

So in a sentence or two, what would you say the source is about, what happened, what have we learned? Any answer, as long as it's brief, would be a summary. So here's one of mine. "One morning, a young man named Gregor Samsa woke up as a giant insect. His room is unchanged, which only serves to make his transformation stranger."

As you can see, this summary conveys the most important facts and points of the source, but because it's so much shorter than the original, there are many details that get left out. If, however, we wanted to keep some of those details, we could paraphrase a section of the source and restate it in about the same number of words.

How about this? My paraphrase of the first two sentences. "Gregor Samsa woke up from a troubled night's sleep to find that he'd been transformed into a giant insect. Laying in bed on his rounded back, it was all Gregor could do to look down at his massive brown belly, divided into sections of stiff armor." As you can see, this is essentially a translation, a rewording of the original text, presenting its ideas and points as I would have written them and ideally, geared towards whatever point or thesis my own text is putting forth.

And the thing is, we can use these techniques on many kinds of sources, not just written texts. What if, for example, we wanted to summarize or paraphrase from the movie, The Empire Strikes Back? If, say, we are writing an essay about portrayals of fatherhood in fairy tales and we wanted to use Star Wars as a more modern example?

Well, first, we should probably summarise the movie since we shouldn't assume everyone is familiar enough with it to understand our analysis without some background. So here's my summary of the whole movie. "In the second movie, The Empire Strikes Back, the rebel forces are scattered and chased by the Empire, and Han, Leia, and Chewbacca take refuge with Lando Calrissian, while Luke goes to Dagobah to begin his training as a Jedi.

But he leaves before it's complete because Darth Vader has taken his friends prisoner and is laying a trap for Luke. When Luke comes to rescue Han, Leia, and Chewbacca, Darth Vader confronts Luke, cripples him, and tells him a secret he already knew-- that Vader is his father. Lando, Leia, and Chewbacca manage to save Luke, and they escape, down but not out."

Now anyone who's seen the movie knows that I left out quite a bit. But like I said above, I'm interested in the father-son element, and that's why spent as much attention as I did between the confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader. I still summarise the movie's main events but in less detail.

If, however, I want to focus even more closely on that particular part of the movie, I could use paraphrasing to do it. Here's an example. "After the fight is lost, with Luke's hand and lightsaber cut off, Darth Vader asks Luke what Obi Wan said happened to his father. When Luke replies that he said Vader killed him, Vader denies it, saying that he is his father. At first, Luke refuses to believe it. But at Vader's urging, perhaps taunting, he searches his heart and knows it's true."

So as you can see, even though this paraphrase is perhaps half the length of the summary, it covers only a fraction of the movie, just like a paraphrase of a written text would do. As we learned earlier, one of the most helpful uses of summarising is applying it to multiple sources. Writers use summaries to present the broader conversation around a subject by summarising the arguments or positions of sources whose authors agree or disagree about specific points.

If, for example, we are working on an essay on the topic of gun control with a working thesis arguing that the federal government should have stricter restrictions on automatic and semiautomatic weapons, focusing more on the kinds of weapons used primarily to commit crimes and public shootings rather than hunting rifles and those types of guns, we would need to present to our readers the conversation going on about such weapons.

Let's say we found three sources that directly discuss automatic and semiautomatic weapons. The first, an article published in Time magazine, seems to claim that it's impossible for the federal government to control distribution of such weapons, but that it doesn't seem to be trying very hard, ignoring events like gun shows as well as private dealers who sell such weapons small-scale and online.

The second, a position paper we found on a nonprofit advocacy group's website, claims that special interests in Washington, DC, have consistently managed to prevent Congress from passing any legislation that would allow the government to adequately control the distribution of such weapons.

And a third, a blog entry by an advocate of gun rights and open carry laws, argues that the government does not have the right to tell citizens what kind of guns are acceptable but acknowledges that there are certain makes and models of guns that are much more likely to be used in crime, and that effort should be stepped up to ensure that only licensed and experienced people have automatic and semiautomatic weapons.

So as you can see, the writer of each of these sources has his or her own priorities and perspectives on the matter. But that doesn't mean we can't perform a summary of all of them and use it to support our position while also distinguishing it from theirs. So long as we're both accurate and fair, that is.

What do you think of this summary? "There is a lack of adequate control and oversight concerning the possession and sale of automatic and semiautomatic weapons. And even though many seem to disagree on not only why this is but what exactly should be done about, the fact remains that people on both sides of the gun control issue seem to agree-- some weapons are more dangerous than others and should be treated differently."

Does this sound like a statement that all three authors would agree with, even if it's not exactly the way they would phrase it and even if it doesn't quite line up with their priorities? The important thing is that we wouldn't be afraid to hear their response.

Now it's important to note that this summary is not the same, nor should it be the same, as our working thesis. There are similarities, of course. But here and in all essays, the division between what's said about a topic and what you say about it should be fairly clear.

In this case, it's a fine line. But I think the difference is that the summary isn't advocating a particular course of action like the thesis does. The summary can't do this because the sources whose arguments are being summarized don't put forth a unified proposal.

And in some ways, that's a good thing. It provides space for our essay. But as you can probably imagine, it's often a good idea to perform this kind of summary. That way, we can use it as support for the thesis itself while also demonstrating our knowledge of the conversation and distinguishing our ideas some points for those of others.

What have we learned today? We learned about summarizing and paraphrasing, discussing the uses and advantages of each, then looking at some examples sources so we can see these techniques in action. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

Stating in your own words another author's ideas.


Expressing in your own words a key point or the main thesis of a source.