Quoting, paraphrasing and summarizing are methods used to include ideas from external sources in your own work. Despite their differences, all three methods require careful referencing to the original material. To determine the strategy that best suits your purpose, consider the following questions:
- Is it important to retain the original author’s writing style and language along with their ideas? If so, quote the original text.
- Is it important to retain the supporting information for each idea used? If so, paraphrase the original text.
- After discarding the supplementary information, is it important to rephrase the ideas into language that is better suited to your own audience? If so, summarize the original text.
Note that all three questions are fundamentally about the audience; specifically, whether the audience for the original work differs from your intended audience.
To quote an excerpt, retain the presented ideas in the exact language and style of the original work. This method is most useful when the language and style employed remains relevant and clear for your intended audience.
To paraphrase an excerpt, rephrase the language and ideas of the original text in their entirety. This method assumes that both the ideas and supplementary information originally provided are essential to gain a complete understanding of the subject matter. It is also assumed that the style and language are not suitable for the new audience and must therefore be altered.
To summarize an excerpt, rephrase the primary ideas of the original text and discard supplementary information. This method assumes that the primary ideas (when rephrased) offer as complete an understanding of the subject matter as is desired. As a general rule, summaries are a third of the length of the original text.
Both paraphrasing and summarizing rephrase ideas to better serve a new audience, but differ in one important aspect: summarizing prioritizes conciseness over clarity, while paraphrasing prioritizes clarity over conciseness.
The following examples clarify the use of all three methods:
“You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to his kind.” – Herbert, Frank (1965). Dune. ISBN 0-441-17271-7.
In Dune, Frank Herbert differentiates humans and animals by comparing how each would react to being caught in a trap. He states that if caught in a trap, an animal is limited to the immediate view of the situation and preserves its own individual safety. The animal’s thought patterns are limited to the present situation, from which it seeks liberation. It therefore sacrifices the trapped limb to escape, without concern for future survival prospects with a missing limb.
Conversely, a human disregards individual concerns and focuses on the hunter as a threat to its species as a whole. This implies a concern for the preservation of the species over the individual as well a thought process that formulates future projections based on past experiences and the current situation. Based on this, a human endures the pain of a trapped limb and waits for the hunter in order to kill a predator that is a threat to its species.
In the science fiction classic Dune, Frank Herbert differentiates a human and animal mind by their reaction to a threat. He theorizes that an animal mind’s highest priority is its own survival rather than the survival of its species. In contrast, a human prioritizes the survival of its species above its individual survival.