How to Summarize, Paraphrase, and Quote from Sources

As you identify and evaluate research sources, you must make accurate notes of information you think might be useful in your essay. There are many ways to take notes—from jotting down single words or phrases to photocopying entire articles.
There are three ways of incorporating source information into your own writing: summaryparaphrase, and direct quotation. When you summarize or paraphrase, you restate in your own words the idea(s) of another speaker or writer. When you quote, you reproduce the exact words of another speaker or writer.

Of the three ways to introduce ideas from a source into your research papers for college and university, direct quotation is the one you should use least—except for literary essays. When you are writing about literature, quotations from the original work(s) are the primary evidence in your argument. Literary essays can also rely on quotations from secondary sources (critics). For an example of a research essay that relies on non-fiction literature for its sources, see Jessica Marlowe’s “What Makes You Happy?” on page 20 (APA format) and 441 (MLA format).
Before we examine how to use source information in your research papers, let’s review what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.


Plagiarism is the single most troublesome problem faced by students writing research papers and by the teachers who mark them. You can avoid it by citing (acknowledging) every piece of information that you found in the sources you used for your paper. Use an approved documentation style.

Here are the guidelines to follow:

  • You do not need to give sources for facts or sayings that are common knowledge (e.g., “Edmonton is the capital of Alberta”; “Sir John A. Macdonald was Canada’s first prime minister”; “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”).
  • Any words taken directly from a source must be marked as a quotation, and you must give full information about the source. (See the “Quoting” section below).
  • Facts, opinions, and ideas that you found on the Internet, in a book or article, or in any other source must be acknowledged even if you express the information in your own words. 
  • Facts, opinions, and ideas that you remember reading or hearing somewhere cannot be presented as your own. If you cannot find and acknowledge a source, you should not use the information. Note: Google is helpful in tracking down sources of information.
  • If you aren’t sure if a fact, opinion, or idea should be acknowledged, err on the side of caution and cite it. (It’s better to be safe than sorry.)


When you summarize information, you find the main ideas in an article, essay, report, or other document, and rephrase them. You shorten (condense) the most important idea or ideas in the source material and express them in your own words. The purpose of summarizing is to give the reader an overview of the article, report, or chapter. If the reader is interested in the details, he or she will read the original.
It’s hard to overstate how valuable the ability to summarize is. Note-taking in school is one form of summarizing. Abstracts of articles, executive summaries of reports, market surveys, legal decisions, research findings, and records (called “minutes”) of meetings, to name only a few kinds of formal documents, are all summaries. Thesis statements and topic sentences are essentially summaries; so, often, are conclusions. In committee, group, or teamwork, imagination and creativity are valuable, but the ability to summarize is even more so. There is no communication skill that you will need or use more than summarizing.
In conversation, we all summarize every day: for example, with friends, you may summarize the plot of a movie you’ve just seen or what happened in class this morning; when your mother calls, you’ll summarize the events of the past week that you want her to know about. But most of us are not very good at summarizing efficiently, especially in writing. Written summaries, unlike conversational ones, require planning. Summarizing effectively is a skill that doesn’t come naturally. You need to practise it.

How to Write a Summary

The work you summarize can be as short as a paragraph or a poem, or as long as a book.  Before you can summarize anything, you need to read and understand it. The material you summarize is usually an article, essay, or chapter (or some portion of it). A typical summary for an undergraduate research paper ranges from a few sentences to one or two paragraphs. Here’s how to proceed:

  1. Read through the piece carefully, looking up any words you don’t understand. Write the meanings above the words they apply to.
  2. Now read the article or essay again—and again, if necessary. Keep reading it until you have identified the main ideas and formed a mental picture of their arrangement. Highlight the title, subtitle, and headings (if there are any).
    The title often identifies the subject of the article, and a subtitle usually indicates its focus. If the piece is long, the writer will often divide it into a number of smaller sections, each with its own heading. These headings usually signal key ideas.
    If there are no headings, pay particular attention to the introduction, where you are likely to find an overview of the subject, together with a statement of the thesis; the topic sentence of each paragraph (topic sentences identify key ideas); and the conclusion, which often summarizes the thesis and points to its significance.
  3. In point form, and in your own words, write out a bare-bones outline of the piece. Your outline should consist of the controlling idea (thesis) of the article and the key ideas, in the order in which they appear. Do not include any supporting details (statistics, specific facts, examples, etc.).
  4. Working from your outline, draft your summary. In the first sentence, identify the article or essay you are summarizing (by title, enclosed in quotation marks) and the author (by name, if known). Complete the sentence by stating the author’s thesis/controlling idea. Here’s an example:

In his essay “Put What Where? 2,000 Years of Bizarre Sexual Advice,” John Naish provides us with a history of sex manuals ranging from the oldest surviving examples written by the Chinese in 300 B.C. to the current mind-boggling array of books, videos, and DVDs available to consumers at the beginning of the 21st century.

Then state, in order, the author’s key ideas. After each sentence in which you identify a key idea, add in your own words any necessary explanation or clarification of that point. (The author, remember, developed each idea in his or her supporting details; your job is to condense those details into general statements that capture the gist of the author’s point.)
Resist the temptation to look back at the article or essay as you write your summary. If you have truly understood the source you are summarizing, you should be able to explain each point from memory. The time to check your work against the source is when you’ve finished the first draft of your summary.
If the author’s conclusion contains any new information (i.e., is more than a summary and memorable statement), briefly reword that information in your conclusion.

  1. Revise your draft until it is coherent, concise, and makes sense to someone who is unfamiliar with the original work. It’s a good idea to get someone to read through your summary to check it for clarity and completeness.

Here’s an example of summarizing in action. Turn to page 112 of Canadian Content, where you will find Wade Davis’s “The End of the Wild.” Read this essay, highlighting the main ideas as you read.
Now read our summary of this essay, below, and see how close you came to identifying what we think are its key points.

In his essay, The End of the Wild,” Wade Davis provides us with three telling examples of the destruction humans have visited on Earth’s life forms over the last 150 years. He begins with the plight of the passenger pigeon, which once constituted 40% of North America’s bird population. Between 1850 and 1900, the entire population of passenger pigeons was wiped out. Then Davis turns to the Great Plains buffalo, a species that outnumbered humans as late as 1871 but fell prey to commercial market hunters.  Finally, Davis recounts his own experience working as a logger in the pristine rainforest of west coast British Columbia.  Davis’s point is that humans are bringing ecological disaster to the planet. (113-115)

This five-sentence paragraph (117 words) captures the gist of Davis’s 4150 -word essay. Admittedly, it isn’t very interesting. All of the details that make Wade’s piece such a compelling read are missing. Summaries are useful for conveying an outline or a brief overview of someone’s ideas, but by themselves they are not memorable. Details and specifics are what stick in a reader’s mind.  These are what your own writing should provide.
A summary should be written entirely in your own words. Your ability to identify and interpret the author’s ideas is evidence of your understanding of the source you are summarizing. If you must include a short phrase from the source because there is no other way to word it, enclose the quoted material in quotation marks and provide a page reference.
Now that we’ve provided you with the “do’s” about summarizing, it’s time to warn you about the “don’ts.”


  • Introduce any ideas that are not mentioned in your source
  • change the proportion or emphasis of the ideas represented in your source
  • introduce your own opinion of the ideas or opinions discussed in your source
  • use the same or similar working of the ideas that you found in your source


When you paraphrase, you restate someone else’s ideas in your own words. Unlike a summary, a paraphrase includes both the main and supporting ideas of your source. The usual purpose of a paraphrase is to express someone else’s ideas more clearly and more simply—to translate what may be complex in the original into easily understandable prose. A paraphrase may be longer than the original, it may be about the same length, or it may be shorter. Whatever its length, a good paraphrase satisfies three criteria:

  1. It is clear, concise, and easy to understand.
  2. It communicates the idea(s) of the original passage.
  3. It doesn’t contain any idea(s) not found in the original passage.

Occasionally, you may need to clarify technical language or explain an aphorism, a proverb, or other saying that states a principle, offers an insight, or teaches a point. Statements that pack a lot of meaning into a few words can be explained only at greater length. For example, a phrase familiar to all baseball fans is “hitting for the cycle.” It simply isn’t possible to restate this phrase in three words. (It means that a batter gets a single, a double, a triple, and a home run in a single game.)

To paraphrase a passage, you need to dig down through your source’s words to the underlying ideas and then reword those ideas as clearly and simply as you can. Like summarizing, the ability to paraphrase is not an inborn talent; it takes patience and much practice to perfect it. But the rewards are worth your time and effort. First, paraphrasing improves your reading skill as well as your writing skill. Second, it improves your memory. In order to paraphrase accurately, you must thoroughly understand what you’ve read—and once you understand something, you’re not likely to forget it.
Here’s an example of how—and how not—to paraphrase. Let’s assume we are writing an essay on the topic of alcoholic beverages you can make at home. To begin with, read the following passage, an excerpt from Paul Quarrington’s “Home Brew”:

Malt and yeast are all you truly need to make beer, and humankind has been making it for something like 8,000 years. (Q: What has humankind been making for 8,000 years? A: Beer!) Hops did not appear on the European scene until the 12th century, and even at that time, there was a resistance in the form of laws forbidding their use. Hops are the flowers of the female hop vine (an aggressive spreader, it has earned the lovely nomenclature Humulus lupulus and is also known as the “wolf of the willows”), and their resins and oils impart flavour of a slightly bitter nature to the beer. (73)

There are two pieces of information in this paragraph that we want to include in our essay:

  1. Humans have been making beer from malt and yeast for 8,000 years.
  2. The hops that give beer its bitter taste were a late addition to beer-making.

If we are not careful, or if we don’t have much experience with paraphrasing, our first attempt at a paraphrase might look something like this:

In his essay entitled “Home Brew,” Paul Quarrington explains that malt and yeast are the only essentials in beer-making, an activity that humans have been doing for 8,000 years. The use of hops did not appear in European beer-making until the 12th century, and it was resisted by many. Hops are the flowers of the female hop vine (Humulus lupulus, also known as “wolf of the willows”), and their resins and oils add a bitter taste to the beer.
This is not paraphrasing—it’s plagiarism. Although we have indicated the source of the information and left out Quarrington’s stylistic flourishes, the wording is almost identical to that of the original. There are no visual or verbal cues to alert the reader that these are Quarrington’s words, not ours. Let’s try again.
In his essay “Home Brew,” Paul Quarrington tells us that for about 80 centuries, humans have been using malt and yeast to brew beer. Hops were added to European beer in the 12th century; in some places, laws were passed prohibiting their use. Hops are the flowers of the female hop vine, which is known both by its Latin name, Humulus lupulus, and by the name “wolf of the willows.” The resins and oils of the hop flowers add a bitter taste to the beer.
Although this version avoids much of Quarrington’s original phrasing, it doesn’t demonstrate any work on our part. We have replaced the source’s words with synonyms and changed the sentences, but our paragraph is still too close to the original. An acceptable paraphrase does not pass off someone else’s ideas as your own by changing a few words and sentence constructions.
 A good paraphrase goes further. It uses source information but rearranges it, rephrases it, and combines it with the writer’s own ideas (and sometimes ideas taken from other research) to create something new. Let’s try once more:

In “Home Brew,” Paul Quarrington tells us that humans have been making beer for at least 8,000 years. While the only ingredients necessary to the brewing of beer are malt (made from grains) and yeast, other ingredients have been added over time to enhance the taste. The most successful and persistent addition to the basic malt and yeast mixture was hops, the flower of Humulus lupulus, which Europeans first introduced in the 12th century. The addition of hops was not greeted with universal enthusiasm: many beer lovers believed the bitter flavour spoiled the purity of their beer. In some regions, this exotic addition to the basic brew was banned by law. (73)

Here we have used paraphrase to incorporate information from a published source, identified in the first sentence, into a paragraph whose topic and structure are our own. Our paraphrase is roughly the same length as the original passage. If you want to take ideas more directly from a source, retaining the original arrangement and some of the wording, you should follow the guidelines given below for quotations.


When learning to write research papers, students tend to use quotations more often than paraphrases or summaries to introduce other writers’ ideas into their own work. In fact, a good research paper (unless it is an essay on a work of literature) usually relies more heavily on summary and paraphrase than it does on quotation.
If you use too many quotations, your paper will be a patchwork of the ideas of others, in their words. Very little of your own thinking will be communicated to the reader. Remember that the main reason teachers assign research papers is to test your ability to find, digest, and make sense of specific information about a topic. If what you hand in consists of a string of quotations, your paper will demonstrate only the first of these three skills.
In most research papers, the ideas, facts, and statistics are the important things, not the wording of an idea or the explanation of facts or statistics. Occasionally, however, you will find that someone else—an expert in a particular field, a well-known author, or a respected public figure—has said what you want to say but eloquently, vividly, more memorably than you could ever hope to say it. In such cases, quotations, as long as they are short and not used too frequently, are useful in developing your topic. Carefully woven into your own paragraph, they help convince the reader of the validity of what you have to say. Use quotations in writing the way you use salt in cooking: sparingly.
You can quote from two kinds of sources—

  • people you know, or have heard speak, or have interviewed
  • print, electronic, or recorded materials (e.g., books, articles,
    CD-ROMs, Web sites, films, tapes)

—and your quotation may be long or short.

Block and Spot Quotations

If the material you are quoting is more than 40 words or four typed lines, it is a long—or block—quotation. After you have introduced it in a phrase or sentence, you begin the quoted passage on a new line and indent all lines of the quotation 10 spaces or 2.5 cm from the left margin. Do not put quotation marks around a block quotation. The 10-space indentation is the reader’s visual cue that this portion of the paragraph is someone else’s words, not yours. In the paragraph that follows, prize-winning author Diane Ackerman quotes David Bodanis at some length in her book A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Random House, 1990: 142–43). She signals that she is quoting by indenting the entire passage she has borrowed from Bodanis:

Committees put a lot of thought into the design of fast foods. As David Bodanis points out with such good humour in The Secret House, potato chips are an example of total destruction foods. The wild attack on the plastic wrap, the slashing and tearing you have to go through is exactly what the manufacturers wish. For the thing about crisp
foods is that they’re louder than non-crisp ones . . . Destructo-packaging sets a favourable mood. . . . Crisp foods have to be loud in the upper register. They have to produce a high-frequency shattering; foods which generate low-frequency rumblings are crunchy, or slurpy but not crisp. . . .

Companies design potato chips to be too large to fit into the mouth, because in order to hear the high-frequency crackling, you need to keep your mouth open. Chips are 80 percent air, and each time we bite one we break open the air-packed cells of the chip, making that noise we call “crispy.” Bodanis asks:

How to get sufficiently rigid cell walls to twang at these squeaking harmonics? Starch them. The starch granules in potatoes are identical to the starch in stiff shirt collars. . . . [In addition to starch,] all chips are soaked in fat. . . . So it’s a shrapnel of flying starch and fat that produces the conical air-pressure wave when our determined chip-muncher finally gets to finish her chomp.

Notice that Ackerman is careful to tell her readers the source of her quotations. To introduce the first one, she gives the author’s full name and the title of his book. To introduce the second quotation, which is from the same book, she simply identifies the author by surname. Thus, she doesn’t waste words by repeating information, nor does she leave readers wondering where the quotation came from. (The only information missing is the Bodanis book’s publication data—city, publisher, and date—which would be provided in the list of sources.
spot quotation is a word, a phrase, or a short sentence that is incorporated into one of your own sentences. Put quotation marks before and after a spot quotation. The quotation marks are a signal to the reader that these aren’t your words; a new voice is speaking. The following paragraph from an article by Robert Fulford contains several spot quotations (“The Use and Abuse of Quotations,” The Globe and Mail, Nov. 11, 1992).

“You are what you quote,” in the words of the American essayist Joseph Epstein, himself a heavy user of quotations and the writer who introduced “quotatious” into my vocabulary. Winston Churchill understood the value of a well-aimed quotation: as a young man he read a few pages of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations every day to spruce up his style and compensate for his lack of a university education. [Gradually,] he transformed himself from a quotatious writer into the most quoted politician of the western world. . . . Fowler’s Modern English Usage warns against quoting simply to demonstrate knowledge: “The discerning reader detects it and is contemptuous,” while the undiscerning reader finds it tedious. A few years ago Garry Trudeau made fun of George Will’s compulsive quoting by inventing a researcher who served as “quote boy” in Will’s office: “‘Quote boy! Need something on the banality of contemporary society.’ ‘Right away, Dr. Will!’” . . . As for me, I say don’t judge, because you might get judged, too. That’s how the quotation goes, right? (C1)

How to Modify a Quotation

In addition to illustrating how to introduce and format block quotations and how to punctuate spot quotations, the examples given above also show you how to modify a quotation to fit your space and suit your purpose. Although you must quote exactly and never misrepresent or distort your source’s intention, you may, for reasons of conciseness or smoothness, omit or add a word or phrase or even a sentence or two.

  • To leave out a word or words, indicate the omission by replacing the word(s) you’ve omitted with three spaced dots called ellipses (. . .). If the omission comes at the end of your sentence, add a fourth dot as the period.
  • If you need to add or change a word or words to make the quoted passage more readable within your paragraph, use square brackets around your own words, as we did when we added “[In addition to starch,]” in Ackerman’s second block quotation from Bodanis and “[Gradually,]” to Fulford’s paragraph.

Another reason for changing words in a quoted passage is to keep the verb tenses consistent throughout your paragraph. If you are writing in the present tense and the passage you are quoting is in the past tense, you can change the verbs to present tense (as long as the change doesn’t distort the meaning) and put square brackets around them so the reader knows you have made these changes.
Modifying short quotations to make them fit smoothly into your own sentences without altering the source’s meaning takes practice. Reread the paragraphs we borrowed from Ackerman and Fulford, above. Notice that both authors omitted material to make the quoted passages shorter and easier to read, and that they have signalled these omissions to the reader by the use of ellipses (. . .).

How to Integrate Quotations into Your Writing

When you decide to quote source material, you should introduce it so that it will blend as seamlessly as possible into your writing. Don’t simply park someone else’s words in the middle of your paragraph; you’ll disrupt the flow of thought. If Diane Ackerman were not so skillful a writer, she might have “dumped” quotations into her paragraph instead of integrating them. Contrast the readability of the paragraph below with that of Ackerman’s second Bodanis quotation.

Companies design potato chips to be too large to fit into the mouth because, in order to hear the high-frequency crackling, you need to keep your mouth open. Chips are 80 percent air, and each time we bite one, we break open the air-packed cells of the chip, making that crispy noise. “The starch granules in potatoes are identical to the starch in stiff shirt collars.” Starch is just one of the ingredients that contribute to the crispiness of potato chips. “All chips are soaked in fat.” “So it’s a shrapnel of flying starch and fat that produces the conical air pressure wave when our determined chip-muncher finally gets to finish her chomp.”

Without transitional phrases, the paragraph lacks coherence and doesn’t make sense. Not convinced? Try reading Ackerman’s version and the above version aloud.
Every quotation should be introduced and integrated into an essay in a way that makes clear the relationship between the quotation and your own argument. There are four ways to integrate a spot quotation.

  1. You can introduce it with a phrase such as “According to X,” or “Y states” (or observes, or comments, or writes), followed by a comma. Different verbs suggest different attitudes toward the quoted material. For example, “Fulford suggests that writers should not overuse quotations” is more tentative than “Fulford warns that writers should not overuse quotations.” Other verbs you can use to introduce quotations are asserts, notes, points out, maintains, shows, reports, and claims. Choose your introductory verbs carefully, and be sure to use a variety of phrases. Repeating “X says,” “Y says,” and “Z says,” is a sure way to put your reader to sleep.
  2. If your introductory words form a complete sentence, use a colon (:) to introduce the quotation. For example:

George Bernard Shaw’s poor opinion of teachers is well known: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”
Oscar Wilde’s opinion of teacher is less famous than Shaw’s but even more cycnical: “Everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching.”

  1. If the passage you are quoting is a couple of words, a phrase, or anything less than a complete sentence, do not use any punctuation to introduce it. Oscar Wilde defined fox hunters as the “unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.” Wilde believed that people “take no interest in a work of art until they are told that the work in question is immoral.”
  2. If you insert your own words into the middle of a quotation, use commas to separate the source’s words from yours.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” writes Jane Austen at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

In general, periods and commas are placed inside the quotation marks (see the examples above). Unless they are part of the quoted material, colons, semicolons, question marks, exclamation marks, and dashes are placed outside the quotation marks. Use single quotation marks to mark off a quotation within a quotation.

According to John Robert Colombo, “The most widely quoted Canadian aphorism of all time is Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The medium is the message.’”

Block quotations are normally introduced by a complete sentence followed by a colon (for example, “X writes as follows:”). Then you copy the quotation, beginning on a new line and indenting the entire quotation 10 spaces or 2.5 cm. If your introductory statement is not a complete sentence, use a comma or no punctuation, whichever is appropriate. The passage by Diane Ackerman contains examples of both ways to introduce block quotations. Can you explain why Ackerman used no punctuation to introduce the first block quotation and a colon to introduce the second one?

Tips on Using Quotations in Your Writing

  1. Use quotations sparingly and for a specific purpose, such as for emphasis or to reinforce an important point.
    Avoid the temptation to produce a patchwork paper—one that consists of bits and pieces of other people’s writing stuck together to look like an original work. Far from impressing your readers, overuse of quotations will give them the impression you have nothing of your own to say.
  2. Be sure every quotation is an accurate reproduction of the original passage.
    If you need to change or omit words, indicate those changes with square brackets or ellipses, as appropriate.
  3. Be sure every quotation is relevant.
    No matter how interesting or well worded, a quotation that does not clearly and directly relate to your subject does not belong in your essay. An irrelevant quotation will either confuse readers or annoy them (they’ll think it’s padding), or both.
  4. Make clear the link between the quotation and your controlling idea.
  5. Always identify the source of a quotation.
    This can be done by mentioning in your paragraph the name of the author and, if appropriate, the title of the source of the quotation. Include the page number(s) in a parenthetical citation.


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