Many college writing assignments require you to write about outside or external sources, or to involve external sources in your own essay, such as articles, books, or Websites. In other words, you are often required to write about someone else’s writing. This might occur when you have to write an analysis about a course reading, or use research to complete a report, or bring in evidence to support an argument.
Regardless of the type of assignment, there are only three ways to bring external sources into your own essay: summary, paraphrasis, and quotation.
Each of these methods requires the exact same type of citation in essays. How to format that citation is a different lesson; this is about how and why to use the strategies of summary, paraphrasis, and quotation. For information on how to cite, see the chapter MLA Format.
Two Different Meanings of Summary
First, note that to summarize a work has two different meanings, both of which are relevant here. One meaning is the larger or general acts of conveying what a source said, and that can involve all three of the more specific techniques below (summary, paraphrasis, and quotation). The other meaning is the specific technique described and demonstrated next.
For instance, a college writing assignment might ask you to summarize an article, and as you do so, you might choose to quote it, paraphrase it, and even summarize it. It might feel odd that we can say we’re summarizing in our summary, but this is just one of myriad oddities of the English language.
Summary is writing your own brief version of what someone else wrote. This means finding your words in order to explain a condensed version of the source material. You would do this when you want to convey the overall ideas of a larger work but in a short space.
Good summaries are accurate and comprehensive, meaning that they should cover every important idea without distorting meanings. Weak summaries tend to leave out important ideas or suggest the wrong ideas.
If you use the same key phrases or unique terms, you are involving the different strategy of quotation and should indicate that accordingly. And remember that every instance of summary in an essay should cite its source.
Example of Summary
Below is an excerpt from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr., and following that is an example of a good one-sentence summary of it.
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
King clarifies that there are two approaches to protest—violent and nonviolent—and although they both create “tension,” the former is destructive while the latter is constructive.
Directions: In one sentence, explain what the following passage says. Try to convey each main idea, but briefly.
The world is swiftly changing and with each day the pace quickens. The pressure to respond intensifies. New global realities are rapidly working their way into the deepest structures of our lives: economic, social, cultural, political, and environmental realities — realities with profound implications for thinking and learning, business and politics, human rights and human conflicts. These realities are becoming increasingly complex; many represent significant dangers and threats. And they all turn on the powerful dynamic of accelerating change.
We cannot deal with incessant and accelerating change and complexity without revolutionizing our thinking. Traditionally our thinking has been designed for routine, for habit, for automation and fixed procedure. We learned how to do our job once, and then we used what we learned over and over. But the problems we now face, and will increasingly face, require a radically different form of thinking, thinking that is more complex, more adaptable, more sensitive to divergent points of view. The world in which we now live requires that we continually relearn, that we routinely rethink our decisions, that we regularly reevaluate the way we work and live. In short, there is a new world facing us, one in which the power of the mind to command itself, to regularly engage in self-analysis, will increasingly determine the quality of our work, the quality of our lives, and perhaps even, our very survival.
(An excerpt from “Our Mission: How Can We Survive in an Increasingly Complex World?” on Critical Thinking.org)
Paraphrasing is a lot like summary, but the difference is that summary skips over all the details and sub-points, and paraphrasis conveys every idea—just in different words than the original. This means that a section of paraphrasis is just as long (if not longer) than the original.
Why you bother with paraphrasing? You shouldn’t if the original is right for your audience, tone, and purpose—you should just quote the original. But if the original would sound unclear to your particular audience, or if it wouldn’t convey or emphasize the idea in the way you want to, then you would want to say it in your own way, which is paraphrasing.
Good examples of paraphrasis will convey all the ideas accurately in a different way. Weak or incorrect examples of paraphrasis will be inaccurate or too close to the original wording, which would defeat the purpose of explaining the same idea in a different way. And remember that every instance of summary in an essay should cite its source.
Example of Paraphrasis
Below is an excerpt from “Supernatural Horror in Literature” by H.P. Lovecraft, and following that is a good example of paraphrasing those ideas for a very different intended audience, in this case an audience of junior-high students.
The appeal of the spectrally macabre [in literature] is generally narrow because it demands from the reader a certain degree of imagination and a capacity for detachment from everyday life.
Paraphrasis for junior-high level readers:
H.P. Lovecraft thought that horror stories aren’t as popular as other types because horror readers need to be able to check out of the real world and drift away into their own strange thoughts.
Directions: Explain the following quotation to a junior-high student in your own words.
“Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward; they may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.”
Quotation is the strategy of using the original source’s exact same words. You will indicate this in essay by putting quotation marks around the original.
There are lots of details about how to quote well technically (punctuation, citation, etc.)—a different lesson (see the chapter MLA Format)—but there is also a way to quote well strategically. First, introduce the quotation to come by leading the reader’s interest into the heart of the idea to come or somehow contextualize the quotation to come. Second, give the quotation. Third, discuss what the quotation said.
Bad or weak uses of quotation will drop in the quotation out of nowhere, as if the sentences around it don’t acknowledge that the quotation exists. In those bad examples, one could take out the quotation and the paragraph still makes sense, which means the quotation was irrelevant to the writing. Here is a bad example using the same Lovecraft quotation as above:
Fiction is divided into several genres, and some are more popular than others. “The appeal of the spectrally macabre is generally narrow because it demands from the reader a certain degree of imagination and a capacity for detachment from everyday life” (Lovecraft). Fantasy fiction continues to be popular among young readers.
Good uses of quotation make the quoted section necessary to the surrounding sentences, which directly incorporate the ideas of the original in some way. Here is a good example using the same Lovecraft quotation as above:
Why do so few readers love horror stories? H.P. Lovecraft thought that there are two reasons. He said, “The appeal of the spectrally macabre is generally narrow because it demands from the reader a certain degree of imagination and a capacity for detachment from everyday life.” This detachment is probably even rarer now that our phones and laptops keep us constantly linked to work, responsibilities, and social engagements.
Directions: Introduce the following quotation by leading interest into the heart of the idea, and then address what it says afterward in some way.
“To study the abnormal is the best way of understanding the normal.”
— William James