Some Guidelines on Academic Summary Writing and Paraphrasing

What is a summary?

Summary writing is an important writing skill in U.S. schools and universities. One important purpose of studying this type of writing is to enable students to demonstrate their understanding of reading material to their teachers or professors; therefore, the better you can summarize, the more likely you can prove to your instructor that you really understand assigned reading material, in whatever field.

There are three main characteristics of an academic summary. First, it is a shortened version of a text which gives readers an idea of the most important information in that text. Second, generally speaking, a summary is about one-quarter to one-third as long as the original. Third, a summary is written in your own words, rather than just copied from the original text.

Of course, for Read/Listen,Respond, and Present projects, you will be giving summaries orally, not necessarily in writing (unless your teacher requires it of you); however, the principles below can be applied to oral as well as written summaries.

How can one write a summary?

What is a "topic sentence"?

This is the sentence that contains the main idea of your summary. It is usually the first, as well as the most general, sentence of the summary. You create a topic sentence by figuring out what the main idea of the article is, and then rewriting it in your own words. (NOTE: Failure to rewrite other people's ideas in your own words, and then including the original words in your work without mentioning the original author, is called plagiarism.)

In U.S. academic culture, plagiarism is a serious offense. Committing plagiarism can result in being expelled from a university. Therefore, it is in your best interest to learn paraphrasing skills.

What is "paraphrasing"?

We can define paraphrasing as restating (or rewriting) someone else's ideas using our own words. Often it is used to make the meaning clearer -- either to one's reader/audience, or to oneself.

What are some "paraphrasing skills"?

Here are some suggested paraphrasing strategies (adapted from Wecklser 1995):

When paraphrasing: Be sure to include all the information in the original excerpt. To paraphrase you can do a number of things.

  1. Use synonyms:

    ORIGINAL: People think it is asocial to sit at a computer terminal at a cafe.

    PARAPHRASE: People think it is anti-social to sit at a computer terminal at a cafe.

  2. Use different forms of a word (noun --> verb; adverb --> adjective, etc.):

    ORIGINAL: Many girls model themselves after their mothers.

    PARAPHRASE: Many girls use their mothers as models.

  3. Change the connectors/transitions, making sure to make any grammatical changes that are necessary:

    ORIGINAL: Computers are expensive; however, the prices are coming down.

    PARAPHRASE: Computers are expensive, but the prices are coming down.

  4. Change active sentences to passive ones (and vice-versa):

    ORIGINAL: Most of the students of the IEI attended the fall picnic.

    PARAPHRASE: The fall picnic was attended by most of the IEI students.

  5. Change negative to affirmative, or vice-versa:

    ORIGINAL: All the political parties disagreed on that particular issue.

    PARAPHRASE: None of the political parties agreed on that particular issue.

  6. Avoid giving your own opinion or new information when paraphrasing.

  7. Avoid changing vocabulary items in certain fields, such as science, technology, education, government, geography (but sometimes you can paraphrase some geographical names), language, brand names, or ordinary, everyday words that have no synonyms, such as dictionary, chair, or toothbrush.

  8. To avoid plagiarism: ALWAYS cite your sources. You can do this by writing an introductory clause (which can be written or spoken in several ways) which mentions the author and title of your source, for example,

    • In "Scientists Use Fiber Optic Network as Internet Alternative", the author syas/writes/states/informs...

    • Deborah Shapley, in an article entitled, "Scientists Use Fiber Optic Network as Internet Alternative," expresses/ states/writes/etc....

  9. If the information in the statement is common knowledge, you do not need to cite the source. For example, if you heard about something of major importance on the six o'clock news that was broadcast all over the country or world, citing the specific source is not crucial, although you should cite specific details and statements about this happening.

  10. BEWARE of using a bilingual dictionary or a thesaurus when you paraphrase, because some synonyms are quite different in meaning or usage. (For instance, one dictionary gives change, vary, convert, and transmute as synonyms, and then gives separate definitions for each.)

    ORIGINAL: Cybercafes are changing the face of coffee shops worldwide.

    PARAPHRASE: Cybercafes are transmuting the face of coffee shops worldwide. (Incorrect synonym)

  11. Be sure that the meaning of your paraphrase is the same as that of the original statement.

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