Is Quoting Slowing You Down? Try Summarizing to be Strategically Efficient

The purpose of academic writing is to construct an analytical proof in support of a proposed knowledge contribution, and doing this work always involves pointing to the statements made by other scholars in order to agree or disagree with the ideas and explanations they have previously proposed. There are several different ways to put another person’s ideas in front of your reader, and the most direct way is to quote some of that person’s writing. The advantage of quoting is that it presents your reader with the exact articulation the other person made, ensuring that nothing about its meaning is corrupted by being translated into your own words. The disadvantage of quoting is that it commits you to a pace (the syntactical flow of your prose) that is equal to or slower than the writer you quote. If the quotation can speak for itself, then the pace will be the same. But if you need to elaborate and unpack the meanings and implications of the quote, then your own pace will be even slower than the original.

Sometimes, slowing down to really draw out the meanings and insights from another writer’s formulation is exactly what your own analysis needs to do. But what about times when the ideal pacing for your own analysis means that you need to present your readers with another person’s work more quickly and efficiently than they did in the first place? In these cases, quoting may slow you down in a way that disrupts the flow of your analysis. Summarizing is a useful alternative to quoting because it allows you to present the essential knowledge of the quoted text at a pace appropriate to your own analytical needs.

Try the following strategy to identify places in your writing where summarizing would be more effective than quoting.

Step 1: Review your draft and identify places where you quote a particular scholar at length, either by including a long block quote or by threading frequent quotations from a single source into your own writing. Look especially for places where your discussion of the quoted material has the effect of slowing down the pace (or of “zooming in”) even more than the original.

Step 2: In each instance that you’ve identified, take a moment to consider your analytical purpose for discussing that other work. What point were you ultimately trying to make by way of that material? Does your reader really need the amount of detail you’ve developed in your discussion of that material in order to grasp the point you are making? If you think they do, then stick with the quote-and-elaborate approach. But if you think readers could be helped along just fine by a ‘zoomed-out’ summary, then you’ll want to revise with that realization in mind.

Work on developing your summary of the material in question. When trying to articulate a more ‘zoomed-out’ summary of something, it can help to think through speaking instead of writing. On your phone, open up your notes app or some other dictation app. Alternatively, you can use Microsoft Word’s record function. Talk through the material. Explain out loud what the quote says, why it is relevant, and how it supports your argument. This dialogue should be informal and relatively unstructured; imagine you are speaking to a peer.

Step 3: Listen to the recording or review the dictated text. Look for places where you articulated the core points of the material in a shorter, more efficient way. Now use those bits as a starting point for writing out a summary you can use in your draft.

If you are wrestling with related issues, like knowing when to paraphrase our quote, check out “Not Sure Whether You Should Paraphrase, Cite or Block-quote? Assessing Evidence Length and Detail.” With some practice, these exercises work well together so that your use of both summaries and quotes will be analytically appropriate and rhetorically powerful.