Paraphrase, Summary, Precis

Three writing strategies that help you understand what you are reading and to communicate information to others are the paraphrase, summary, and précis. All three ask you to put the information you have collected into your own words


When you paraphrase, you explain in your own words your source’s argument, following its line of reasoning and its sequence of ideas. The paraphrase should give readers an accurate understanding of the author’s position on the topic. Remember, your job is not to prove yourself correct, but to uncover and explain all the facts and arguments involved in what you have read.  It does not matter yet whether you agree or disagree with the passage; it only matters that you comprehend what the passage says.

To paraphrase, do the following:

1. substitute synonyms for the passage’s more important terms. These synonyms
should be accurate both in denotative and connotative meaning. This
restatement preserves both the original meaning of the passage and the
author’s position on the matter, but it may be difficult to read at some points.
2. Fine tune the sentence construction, possibly even adding a phrase here and
there to illustrate a point more clearly or show a connection between two ideas.

The paraphrase alters the wording of the passage without changing its meaning. It retains the basic logic of the argument, its sequence of ideas, and even the examples used in the passage. Most importantly, it accurately conveys the author’s meaning and opinion.


A summary restates only the author’s main ideas, omitting all the examples and evidence used in supporting and illustrating those points. The function of a summary is to represent the scope and emphasis of a relatively large amount of material in an efficient and concise form. In both the paraphrase and summary the author’s meaning and opinion have been retained. However, in the case of the summary, examples and illustrative elements of the passage are omitted. Because they can be used to encapsulate everything from a long narrative passage of an essay, to a chapter in a book, to the entire book itself, summaries can be tremendously helpful.

To summarize

1. Read the passage carefully, noting the thesis, main arguments and conclusion.
2. State these in your own words.
3. Edit to confirm that each sentence contributes to the whole of the document.  In
long summaries, you may want to include carefully chosen quotations from the
the original.

NOTE:  While we need to be true to the message of the original when we summarize, we also have to make choices about what must be included, what needs special emphasis, and so on. When writing for public purposes, though, we make those choices based on the use to which we will make of the summary in our larger project.  We would summarize the Gettysburg address very differently, for example, if we were using the summary in an article about Lincoln’s presidency, on the one hand, and in a critique of Obama’s election night speech (where he references Lincoln).

It is useful, then, to develop skills not only in writing comprehensive summaries but ones that address particular agendas.


The précis (pronounced pray-see) is a type of summary that insists on an exact reproduction of the logic, organization, and emphasis of the original texts. It is a miniature of the whole document.

It is of particular use in situations in which you want to detail the relative order, proportions, and relationships of the original parts of a text. An effective précis retains the logic, development, and argument of the original in much shorter form. Thus, a précis is useful when you are dealing with lengthy passages that demand careful attention to the logic and organization of an argument.

To write an effective précis,

1. read the passage several times for a full understanding.
2. Note key points. It may, in fact, be helpful to underline these words.
3. Restate each paragraph in one-to-three sentences. In cases where there are
very short paragraphs, combine them in your restatement.
4. Making sure that you retain the precise order of the original points, combine the
sentences into one or more smooth paragraphs.
5. Check your précis against the original to be sure that it is exact and retains the
order, proportions, and relationships of the original.

Mary Pat McQueeney designed an earlier version of this document at the University of Kansas.

She developed the current version at JCCC on May 30, 2000.