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Read about paraphrasing


To paraphrase means to restate another writer’s idea using your own words. We do this not only in writing but in everyday conversation quite a bit. Think back to a recent conversation. Did you contribute to it by sharing an idea or point made by someone else? Maybe you said something like “Well, my roommate said…” or “I heard someone on the news say…” or “I remember reading that…” In these moments, you shared an idea, point, story, or piece of evidence from another source in order to further your and others’ understanding of a topic at hand. To accomplish this, you determined that what mattered to you was what the writer said (the writer’s idea) and not so much how the writer expressed that idea (the writer’s exact wording).

It might be tempting to just quote all your sources instead of paraphrasing them, especially if you are concerned about relaying their ideas correctly. But paraphrasing is often far more effective for a few reasons:

Quoting can get repetitive. No one wants to read a paper chock full of quotes; they want to read your ideas.
Paraphrasing shows the reader that you are a savvy, skilled writer. It proves that you not only understand the rules of integrating source materials in with your own words/ideas, but also that you thoroughly understand the material you are paraphrasing.
Paraphrasing makes you appear like a more credible and knowledgeable author. Anyone can copy and paste a quote, but it takes a truly conscientious writer to properly paraphrase.
Since paraphrasing is interested in what the writer is saying (the idea) and not so much how the writer says it (the exact words), paraphrasing is useful when you need to present a writer’s idea but the original wording makes the idea difficult to understand. For example, the writer’s original wording might be full of confusing jargon or archaic expressions that get in the way of the clarity of the idea.
When you summarize, you use a relatively small number of words (a phrase, a sentence, or maybe a paragraph) to recap another writer’s main argument or point. So, summary allows you to give your audience an idea of what someone has said or written before in “broad strokes”. To help you concisely recap the writer’s main point, summarizing always requires you to reduce a writer’s larger work down to those broad strokes: a phrase, a sentence or several sentences. However, paraphrasing is different from summarizing because it doesn’t try to handle so much material or information at once (like a writer’s overall point). When you paraphrase, you restate a single, specific point from the writer’s larger work, in your own words.

Make sure you’ve read the passage carefully, identifying the main points. First, introduce the paraphrase with a signal phrase. Next, rewrite the passage using as many of your own words as you can. A thesaurus can a help a lot with this. But a good paraphrase isn’t just simple word substitution. Instead, it requires you to introduce the paraphrased material so your readers know which ideas are yours and which ones aren’t. Then cite your paraphrase.  Lastly, explain it.

Unlike quotations, paraphrases do not include quotations marks. However, you still need to signal to your reader when you are paraphrasing someone else’s idea. Be sure to introduce your paraphrase with a signal phrase. Here a few common signal phrases:

“Smith claims that…”
“Smith argues that…”
“According to Smith…”
“In Smith’s view…”
“Smith points out that…”
“Smith demonstrates that…”
Clearly signaling where the paraphrase begins and ends does a couple of things. Introducing your paraphrase provides your reader with important contextual information to help your reader better understand the paraphrased idea.

Including citational information for the source helps you avoid plagiarism. In fact, this process is similar to the way quotes are set up using the ICE method. Finally, remember to vary the kinds of signal phrases you use to help keep your writing interesting.

In her article “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” Judith Shulevitz draws from a large number of sources to discuss the ways that college students tackle uncomfortable ideas in class. She suggests that sometimes students prefer taking the easy route of “hiding” from these ideas rather than exploring them. Here is a passage from the article:

But why are students so eager to self-infantilize? Their parents should probably share the blame. Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote on Slate last month that although universities cosset [pamper] students more than they used to, that’s what they have to do, because today’s undergraduates are more puerile [immature] than their predecessors (45).

Here Shulevitz does her own paraphrasing by referencing Eric Posner’s ideas. She accomplishes this with a clear signal phrase that includes both the source’s name and original publication:

“Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote on Slate last month that…”

This shows us how knowledgeable she is on the subject of education and that she is a skilled, credible writer. At the end of the paraphrased passage, she includes a citation. Altogether, she manages to demonstrate her knowledge by placing this paraphrase in context with the larger topic of universities’ responsibility toward students’ feelings.

Imagine if Shulevitz had said this instead:

But why are students so eager to self-infantilize? Their parents should probably share the blame. That is why universities cosset students more than they used to, that’s what they have to do, because today’s undergraduates are more puerile than their predecessors.

Notice she passes off the idea in the third sentence as her own instead of giving credit to Eric Posner as she did in the original example. Unfortunately, the reader has no way of knowing whether this was intentional or an honest mistake on her part. In either case, she loses credibility as the author because she unintentionally plagiarizes Posner’s idea.

You should strive to keep paraphrases short, usually a few sentences or so. Otherwise, you run the risk of letting your entire paper become a collection of other people’s’ ideas, when instead their ideas should be supporting yours. So your paraphrase of the passage and the original should be roughly the same length.

Since paraphrasing is a restatement of another person’s idea in your own words, a good paraphrase should avoid keeping too much of the writer’s original wording. Retaining too much of the writer’s original language makes you vulnerable to plagiarism. To avoid this, a general rule is to use no more than 25% of the original words in your paraphrase.

Presenting another’s point, idea, or argument in a clear and fair way is central to paraphrasing. You do not want to misrepresent what someone has said. Even if this happens with just one of your sources, it throws the legitimacy of all the others into question. To avoid misrepresenting what someone else said, you need to do a couple things:

Make sure you understand the original text as a whole and the specific point you are paraphrasing.
Use your own language, but make sure it is as close in meaning as possible to the original.
Sources must always be cited even if you’re not quoting a writer word for word. Partially this is to protect you from plagiarism, but more importantly the citation shows that you understand the value of others’ ideas. By using others’ ideas in an ethical way, you signal to your reader that you are honest and credible.


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