12 MIN READ
Paraphrasing and Summarizing
Summing Up Key Ideas In Your Own Words
Imagine you're preparing a presentation for your CEO. You asked everyone in your team to contribute, and they all had plenty to say!
But now you have a dozen reports, all in different styles, and your CEO says that she can spare only 10 minutes to read the final version. What do you do?
The solution is to paraphrase and summarize the reports, so your boss gets only the key information that she needs, in a form that she can process quickly.
In this article, we explain how to paraphrase and how to summarize, and how to apply these techniques to text and the spoken word. We also explore the differences between the two skills, and point out the pitfalls to avoid.
What Is Paraphrasing?
When you paraphrase, you use your own words to express something that was written or said by another person.
Putting it into your own words can clarify the message, make it more relevant to your audience, or give it greater impact.
You might use paraphrased material to support your own argument or viewpoint. Or, if you're putting together a report, presentation or speech, you can use paraphrasing to maintain a consistent style, and to avoid lengthy quotations from the original text or conversation.
Paraphrased material should keep its original meaning and (approximate) length, but you can use it to pick out a single point from a longer discussion.
What Is Summarizing?
In contrast, a summary is a brief overview of an entire discussion or argument. You might summarize a whole research paper or conversation in a single paragraph, for example, or with a series of bullet points, using your own words and style.
People often summarize when the original material is long, or to emphasize key facts or points. Summaries leave out detail or examples that may distract the reader from the most important information, and they simplify complex arguments, grammar and vocabulary.
Used correctly, summarizing and paraphrasing can save time, increase understanding, and give authority and credibility to your work. Both tools are useful when the precise wording of the original communication is less important than its overall meaning.
How to Paraphrase Text
To paraphrase text, follow these four steps:
1. Read and Make Notes
Carefully read the text that you want to paraphrase. Highlight, underline or note down important terms and phrases that you need to remember.
2. Find Different Terms
Find equivalent words or phrases (synonyms) to use in place of the ones that you've picked out. A dictionary, thesaurus or online search can be useful here, but take care to preserve the meaning of the original text, particularly if you're dealing with technical or scientific terms.
3. Put the Text into Your Own Words
Rewrite the original text, line by line. Simplify the grammar and vocabulary, adjust the order of the words and sentences, and replace "passive" expressions with "active" ones (for example, you could change "The new supplier was contacted by Nusrat" to "Nusrat contacted the new supplier").
Remove complex clauses, and break longer sentences into shorter ones. All of this will make your new version easier to understand.
4. Check Your Work
Check your work by comparing it to the original. Your paraphrase should be clear and simple, and written in your own words. It may be shorter, but it should include all of the necessary detail.
Paraphrasing: an Example
Despite the undoubted fact that everyone's vision of what constitutes success is different, one should spend one's time establishing and finalizing one's personal vision of it. Otherwise, how can you possibly understand what your final destination might be, or whether or not your decisions are assisting you in moving in the direction of the goals which you've set yourself?
The two kinds of statement – mission and vision – can be invaluable to your approach, aiding you, as they do, in focusing on your primary goal, and quickly identifying possibilities that you might wish to exploit and explore.
We all have different ideas about success. What's important is that you spend time defining your version of success. That way, you'll understand what you should be working toward. You'll also know if your decisions are helping you to move toward your goals.
Used as part of your personal approach to goal-setting, mission and vision statements are useful for bringing sharp focus to your most important goal, and for helping you to quickly identify which opportunities you should pursue.
How to Paraphrase Speech
In a conversation – a meeting or coaching session, for example – paraphrasing is a good way to make sure that you have correctly understood what the other person has said.
Useful questions include:
- If I hear you correctly, you're saying that…?
- So you mean that…? Is that right?
- Did I understand you when you said that…?
You can use questions like these to repeat the speaker's words back to them. For instance, if the person says, "We just don't have the funds available for these projects," you could reply: "If I understand you correctly, you're saying that our organization can't afford to pay for my team's projects?"
This may seem repetitive, but it gives the speaker the opportunity to highlight any misunderstandings, or to clarify their position.
When you're paraphrasing conversations in this way, take care not to introduce new ideas or information, and not to make judgements on what the other person has said, or to "spin" their words toward what you want to hear. Instead, simply restate their position as you understand it.
Sometimes, you may need to paraphrase a speech or a presentation. Perhaps you want to report back to your team, or write about it in a company blog, for example.
In these cases it's a good idea to make summary notes as you listen, and to work them up into a paraphrase later. (See How to Summarize Text or Speech, below.)
How to Summarize Text or Speech
Follow steps 1-5 below to summarize text. To summarize spoken material – a speech, a meeting, or a presentation, for example – start at step 3.
1. Get a General Idea of the Original
First, speed read the text that you're summarizing to get a general impression of its content. Pay particular attention to the title, introduction, conclusion, and the headings and subheadings.
2. Check Your Understanding
Build your comprehension of the text by reading it again more carefully. Check that your initial interpretation of the content was correct.
3. Make Notes
Take notes on what you're reading or listening to. Use bullet points, and introduce each bullet with a key word or idea. Write down only one point or idea for each bullet.
If you're summarizing spoken material, you may not have much time on each point before the speaker moves on. If you can, obtain a meeting agenda, a copy of the presentation, or a transcript of the speech in advance, so you know what's coming.
Make sure your notes are concise, well-ordered, and include only the points that really matter.
The Cornell Note-Taking System is an effective way to organize your notes as you write them, so that you can easily identify key points and actions later. Our article, Writing Meeting Notes, also contains plenty of useful advice.
4. Write Your Summary
Bullet points or numbered lists are often an acceptable format for summaries – for example, on presentation slides, in the minutes of a meeting, or in Key Points sections like the one at the end of this article.
However, don't just use the bulleted notes that you took in step 3. They'll likely need editing or "polishing" if you want other people to understand them.
Some summaries, such as research paper abstracts, press releases, and marketing copy, require continuous prose. If this is the case, write your summary as a paragraph, turning each bullet point into a full sentence.
Aim to use only your own notes, and refer to original documents or recordings only if you really need to. This helps to ensure that you use your own words.
If you're summarizing speech, do so as soon as possible after the event, while it's still fresh in your mind.
5. Check Your Work
Your summary should be a brief but informative outline of the original. Check that you've expressed all of the most important points in your own words, and that you've left out any unnecessary detail.
Summarizing: an Example
So how do you go about identifying your strengths and weaknesses, and analyzing the opportunities and threats that flow from them? SWOT Analysis is a useful technique that helps you to do this.
What makes SWOT especially powerful is that, with a little thought, it can help you to uncover opportunities that you would not otherwise have spotted. And by understanding your weaknesses, you can manage and eliminate threats that might otherwise hurt your ability to move forward in your role.
If you look at yourself using the SWOT framework, you can start to separate yourself from your peers, and further develop the specialized talents and abilities that you need in order to advance your career and to help you achieve your personal goals.
SWOT Analysis is a technique that helps you identify strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats. Understanding and managing these factors helps you to develop the abilities you need to achieve your goals and progress in your career.
Permission and Citations
If you intend to publish or circulate your document, it's important to seek permission from the copyright holder of the material that you've paraphrased or summarized. Failure to do so can leave you open to allegations of plagiarism, or even legal action.
It's good practice to cite your sources with a footnote, or with a reference in the text to a list of sources at the end of your document. There are several standard citation styles – choose one and apply it consistently, or follow your organization's house style guidelines.
As well as acknowledging the original author, citations tell you, the reader, that you're reading paraphrased or summarized material. This enables you to check the original source if you think that someone else's words may have been misused or misinterpreted.
Some writers might use others' ideas to prop up their own, but include only what suits them, for instance. Others may have misunderstood the original arguments, or "twisted" them by adding their own material.
If you're wary, or you find problems with the work, you may prefer to seek more reliable sources of information. (See our article, How to Spot Real and Fake News, for more on this.)
Paraphrasing means rephrasing text or speech in your own words, without changing its meaning. Summarizing means cutting it down to its bare essentials. You can use both techniques to clarify and simplify complex information or ideas.
To paraphrase text:
- Read and make notes.
- Find different terms.
- Put the text into your own words.
- Check your work.
You can also use paraphrasing in a meeting or conversation, by listening carefully to what's being said and repeating it back to the speaker to check that you have understood it correctly.
To summarize text or speech:
- Get a general idea of the original.
- Check your understanding.
- Make notes.
- Write your summary.
- Check your work.
Seek permission for any copyrighted material that you use, and cite it appropriately.
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