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Paraphrasing and summarising

In contrast to quoting directly, by summarising or paraphrasing an author's ideas you are able to present your interpretation of an author's ideas and to integrate them more fully into the structure of your writing.

Paraphrasing is generally used when you wish to refer to sentences or phrases in the source text. It is particularly useful when you are dealing with facts and definitions. Paraphrasing involves rewriting a short section from the source text in different words whilst keeping the same meaning.

Summarising is generally used when you wish to refer to ideas contained in a long text. Summarising enables you to reduce the author's ideas to key points in an outline of the discussion or argument by omitting unnecessary details and examples.

Whether you summarise or paraphrase, you will still need to include a reference citing the source of the ideas you have referred to.

A process for paraphrasing and summarising

Many students find the following process useful for summarising and paraphrasing information.

  • Read the text carefully - you may need to read the text several times, and check the meaning of terms you do not understand in a dictionary.
  • Identify and underline the key words and main ideas in the text, and write these ideas down.
  • Consider these points as a whole and your purpose for using this information in relation to the structure of your assignment. You may be able to group the ideas under your own headings, and arrange them in a different sequence to the original text.
  • Think about the attitude of the author, i.e. critical, supportive, certain, uncertain. Think about appropriate reporting verbs you could use to describe this attitude.
  • Think of words or phrases which mean roughly the same as those in the original text. Remember, if the key words are specialised vocabulary for the subject, they do not need to be changed. (see Using synonyms below.)
  • Using your notes from the above steps, draft your summary or paraphrase.
  • When you have finished your draft reread the original text and compare it to your paraphrase or summary. You can then check that you have retained the meaning and attitude of the original text.

Using synonyms

To paraphrase a text, you can use a variety of techniques, such as synonymous words, synonymous word forms, or synonymous phrases. For example, the student text below has used synonymous word forms(scanners - scanner, use - using) (in bold), synonymous words (convert - recreates) (in bold italics), and synonymous phrases (their "eyes" - the scanner eye) (in italics).

Original source

scanners convert analog data into digital information... scanners use small electronic components (called CCDs, PMTs, or CISs) as their "eyes"...

Student text

A scanner recreates an image such as a graphic using small electronic components referred to as the scanner's eyes...

Changing word forms

A common approach to changing the word forms in a sentence is to change the main verb into a noun, or less commonly to change the main noun into a verb. For example, compare the two sentences below:

Original source

Scanners convert analog data into digital information.

Paraphrased sentence

The conversion of an image such as a graphic by a scanner occurs...

Re-ordering main ideas

Another way of paraphrasing is to change the order of the main ideas in a sentence. One way of doing this is to change the active voice to passive voice or the passive voice to active voice. The active voice focuses on who or what is affected by a process or event, whilst the passive voice focuses on the event or process. For example compare the use of ' scanners convert' and ' the conversion of' in the examples above.

For further information on the use of active and passive voice see the grammar tutorial.

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