What is the difference between quotation, paraphrase, and summary?

Writing in college often means using ideas from other sources. There are times when it may be best to quote the sources directly, while other times may be better served by paraphrasing or summary. In order to decide which technique to use, it is helpful to think about how you are using the information in your paper.


  • Quotation reproduces a statement word-for-word as it appears in its original source
  • Paraphrase explains a statement by using your own words and sentence structure
  • Summary explains a statement using your words, but typically condenses a larger statement into a shorter explanation

How to decide which approach to use

Direct quotations can be useful when the exact wording of a statement is important. The exact wording of a quotation may be significant to your claim. In example 1 below, the contrast between adjectives are important to the claim. Also, direct quotation may be important when you want to make sure you are being precise in representing the author’s position. Finally, you might choose to use a direct quotation when the original statement is particularly well written or structurally persuasive. If a statement uses elements such as parallelism or alliteration, you might not be able to recreate that same effect. An important element of the quotation in example 1 is the parallel structure between "lowest and vilest alleys" and "smiling and beautiful countryside."

Example 1:

When Sherlock tells Watson "the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside,” he intensifies suspense by equating innocence with evil ("The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" 502).

Paraphrasing is usually expected in research and argumentative essays. These type of papers benefit from paraphrasing because it shows that you understand the source and are therefore a reliable voice on that source. Paraphrasing can make the evidence more straightforward. Another reason to paraphrase is to adjust your tone for your audience. If the assignment asks you to write a presentation for your classmates, you do not want to quote scientific jargon. Your source is only persuasive and supportive if your readers understand it. The paraphrase of the quotation below is shorter, and more direct.

Example 2:

Original quotation:  “In the case of Facebook, it has changed its format multiple times, and merged other literacy practices – email, instant messaging, games – into its structure in an attempt to keep users on the site” (Keller 2014, 74).

Paraphrase: Facebook has tried to hold on to its users by incorporating new functions like games and email (Keller 2014).

Summaries can also be used in reviews, research papers, and argumentative essays. They have a similar purpose as paraphrasing, but they condense a large work (i.e. an entire chapter, article, or book) into a shorter text such as a paragraph or a short essay. Summaries allow you to focus your description on  the parts that are relevant to your discussion. Example 3 briefly summarizes Anne of Green Gables, focusing on Anne as a strong female character and could lead into a discussion of how the series teaches girls self-respect while also cherishing romance.

Example 3:

Anne of Green Gables is a book series that follows the life of an unruly red-headed orphan as she grows from an romantic adolescent into an independent young woman.

What can the Writing Center do to help?

Writing Center consultants can help you if you aren't sure what style of source integration works best for an assignment. Some essays require a mix of methods. Consultants can help you determine if your writing needs a better balance of integration methods. If you are less familiar with one of the three uses of sources, the Writing Center can give you additional pointers.

See our section on how to incorporate sources for more on punctuating and introducing quotations. Also see our section on avoiding plagiarism to learn how to paraphrase and summarize.