Paraphrasing and Summarizing

Paraphrasing

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a paraphrase as “an expression in other words, usually fuller and clearer, of the sense of any passage or text; a free rendering or amplification of a passage. . . . [Paraphrasing is] to express the meaning of (a word, phrase, passage, or work) in other words, usually with the object of fuller and clearer exposition; . . . . so as to bring out the sense” (XI: 204).
 
Paraphrasing allows you to reproduce another writer’s argument and adapt the way it is phrased. Its real purpose is to make the original text more easily understandable and to cast it in a slightly different light – so that the rhetorical purpose of the passage fits in with your own paper’s argument. It usually reproduces the original author’s idea in roughly the same number of words as the original, and fits it in seamlessly with your own text. The important things to remember are 1) that a paraphrase is in your own words, 2) that it cannot change the author’s meaning or intent, and 3) you must cite the source accurately.
Example of a Paraphrase
 
Original Text: “[C]hronological consistency of cultural artifacts, including language, cannot really be seen as a defining feature of the Tolkienian narrative, however much the author seems to have wanted to make it so -- after the fact. As T.A. Shippey has pointed out, the Shire is Edwardian England, with postal service, pipes after dinner, teatime and ‘weskits’” (Straubhaar, 110).
 
Paraphrase: Although Tolkien believed that it was very important to link his antique world of Middle Earth to real languages and cultures, this connection is not always an accurate one in terms of time. As T.A. Shippey has noted, there are many examples of the cosy rituals of everyday life in Edwardian England (smoking a pipe after a meal, tea, mail delivery, wearing of vests) in the life of the Shire (Straubhaar, 110).
 

Summarizing

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the act of summarizing as “to sum up; to state briefly or succinctly” and the characteristics of a summary as “containing or comprising the chief points or the sum and substance of a matter; . (now usually with implication of brevity” (XVII: 170).
 
When you are writing papers, it is often necessary to condense the gist of a long argument or a passage into a short version. Summarizing is a particularly important skill for science writers, who often have to refer in a sentence or two to research done by others, and it is a necessary skill for those who are writing a review of literature or an annotated bibliography. All of us use summaries at some point when we write, incorporating these allusions to other people’s ideas or findings into our own papers to support our arguments. As with paraphrases, 1) a summary is in your own words, 2) cannot change the author’s meaning or intent, and 3) the source must be cited accurately.
 
So let’s look at our original sample again and see how different a summary would be from a paraphrase.
 
Original Text: “[C]hronological consistency of cultural artifacts, including language, cannot really be seen as a defining feature of the Tolkienian narrative, however much the author seems to have wanted to make it so -- after the fact. As T.A. Shippey has pointed out, the Shire is Edwardian England, with postal service, pipes after dinner, teatime and ‘weskits’” (Straubhaar, 110).
 
Summary: Despite his intent, Tolkien’s work contains anachronisms, so even in Middle Earth his characters live like Edwardian Englishmen.”
 
The great danger when paraphrasing or summarizing is that we will re-use the language of the original text. This is something that must be avoided, although there are some words (in this case “Edwardian” which describes the period in English history between 1901-1910 when Edward the Seventh was on the throne in England) that can be repeated because they are, so to speak, in the public domain and it would be virtually impossible to refer to them in any other way. Other examples would be DNA and other scientific terms, names of famous people or events, dates, etc. Copying other words from the original is, however, plagiarism. The general rule for paraphrasing and summarizing is that you should not repeat more than four sequential words from the original text, although some authorities have limited the number to three sequential words. Nor can you jumble the words from the original text into a different order and consider that by changing the order in which you say something you have avoided any charges of plagiarism. This particular method of plagiarizing even has its own name: “the mosaic.”
 

Paraphrasing and Summarizing Tips

Most people suggest that the best way to write a paraphrase or a summary is to read the original text over, then put it aside. Write your own piece, then check back to see if you have accurately reproduced the original ideas and have done so in your own words without plagiarizing. Remember to include all of the necessary information about the source.
 
When summarizing a longer piece, it helps to ask the following questions as you read through the text. If you are using a photocopy or if you own the text, underline the places where you see the answers to the following questions. After you have done that you can begin to write, using the answers to these questions as your focus.
  • What was the problem or the focus of the original text?
  • What was the hypothesis or thesis argument?
  • What were the results or what evidence was given?
If you are writing a summary for a specific purpose, such as an annotated bibliography or review of literature you will also want to make note of the following, marking it in your rough notes so that it will be highlighted as your own analysis. 
  • What was the author's method or line of approach?
  • What was the author's bias, or what school of thought within the field does s/he belong to?
  • Is there anything in the author's text that would be important for my own research project?

Continue on to the Paraphrasing and Summarizing Exercise