Techniques for effective paraphrasing

Techniques for paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is an important skill for academic writing, and yet it is very often misunderstood. Commonly, paraphrasing is expressed as “restating someone else’s ideas in your own words.” While this is technically accurate, it can lead students to believe that paraphrasing is simply about finding synonyms to replace the words in the original author’s text. Paraphrasing is most effective and useful when you think about it as a way to explain someone else’s ideas in relation to, or in the context of, your own argument.  

Getting started

When writers are new to paraphrasing, they might think it’s acceptable to simply substitute certain words with synonyms. Here is an example, taken from the writing handbook They Say/I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein:

“Whenever you enter into a conversation with others in your writing, then, it is extremely important that you go back to what those others have said, that you study it very closely, and that you not confuse it with something you already believe” (2014, p. 33).

If a writer was told to “put this sentence into her own words,” and simply tried to find synonyms, they might end up with something like this:

Anytime someone dialogues with different authors, it is crucial that they return to what those different authors have said, that they scrutinize it, and that they avoid mistaking it for what they previously accepted (Graff & Birkenstein, 2014, p. 33).

You will notice that this example uses very few of the same words as the original quotation (i.e., it has been put into the author’s “own words”). However, it might be difficult for the reader to understand.

More seriously, this paraphrase could be considered plagiarism or patch-writing—even though the source is cited! Why?

Substituting synonyms for some of the author’s original words does not explain the source, highlight its importance, or show the reader how the source helps convey the paper’s argument. To do these things, an acceptable paraphrase must also change the structure of the author’s expression.

Effective paraphrasing

Here is an example of an effective paraphrase of the quotation above:

Graff and Birkenstein (2014) argue throughout their book They Say/I Say that writing is a conversation. When engaging in this conversation, they caution that writers must read carefully in order to ensure that they both understand, and provide fair consideration to, the ideas of others.

Notice three crucial things about this paraphrase:

  1. The author has signalled that the idea comes from the source They Say/I Say (this signalling can be done within the sentence, as it is above, or it can be done through an in-text citation).
  2. The author has “zoomed out” from the original quotation in order to explain the big idea being presented in the source text.
  3. The author has changed the original structure by making two sentences from one. This step helps to accomplish both #1 and #2, above.

Rather than being about words, paraphrasing is about ideas. Instead of focusing on replacing specific words in a quotation, it is more helpful when paraphrasing to think deeply about the ideas that the original author is explaining. Once you understand those ideas, you can “zoom out” and explain the most important idea (or ideas) in your own way.

Try these steps to write an effective paraphrase

Step 1: Read a paragraph from an article that you find interesting or that you are using to write a paper.

Step 2: Make notes to yourself about the most important idea or ideas presented in the paragraph (make these notes in point form, rather than in sentences)

Step 3: Put the article away and, using only your point-form notes, explain the most important idea(s) to someone else.

Remember that when you paraphrase, you must change both the words and sentence structures from the original source. You, therefore, do not use quotation marks but you must still include citation information to point your reader to the source of the original idea.