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ServiceScape Incorporated

How to Perfect Your Paraphrasing: Advice and Examples

Christina Crampe

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So, you're finally getting around to writing that research paper for your biology class and need to gather some evidence to support your thesis. Or maybe you realized that you can't just simply skim through the textbook when preparing for your next history exam (you learned you lesson on the last one…). Or maybe you're just really confused about what a particular passage is saying in your book and you're looking for a way to simplify the meaning without losing the original ideas. If this is you, you might consider paraphrasing. What's paraphrasing? We're glad you asked!


Did your teacher ever tell you to cover a book and rewrite what you just read from memory? We can remember doing this as early as elementary school, when we were learning about how to incorporate evidence into our (appropriately) elementary-level paragraphs. Your teachers were introducing you to the process of paraphrasing!

Paraphrasing is the process of rewording something written or spoken by another source to provide a simplified, clearer meaning. Paraphrasing is done at all levels, and for several purposes: teachers paraphrase material for their students' benefit, and scholars often paraphrase the sources they use in their papers and other published research. Paraphrasing, therefore, is a great way for academics to better understand what it is they are reading, researching, or studying. After all, what better way to understand material than to put it into words you're familiar with?

Paraphrasing is useful in research papers or analytical essays because it allows you to bring external sources into your own work without relying too heavily direct quotations. This isn't to say that you can paraphrase a work without referencing the source (that would be plagiarism!), but it is a good way to make your work more coherent and independent.

Now, just because we might remember being introduced to this process so early in our academic careers does not mean that it's an easy process. On the contrary, paraphrasing can actually be quite challenging. Paraphrasing requires analytical and deductive thinking and great writing skills. You must be able to read and understand material and then reword it in your own words and style while maintaining the original meaning of the source.

Summarizing vs paraphrasing

You may be asking yourself, what's the difference between summarizing and paraphrasing? While they may seem quite similar at first glance, there is a difference between the two processes.

Summarizing is a much broader concept, literally. Summaries will present the material in a much more general fashion, rewording only the biggest main ideas from a source. Summaries are almost always be short and to the point.

Paraphrasing can be about any part of a source, not just the main ideas. Paraphrasing will expand beyond the main ideas to include all the source material, although special attention may be drawn to particular points, if that was the original source's intention. There is more attention to detail in paraphrasing. A paraphrase may be shorter, longer, or the same length as the original source.

When to paraphrase

Paraphrasing is widely used in academia because it is a way for academics to provide evidence towards their own arguments or to learn more about a particular subject. When you want to paraphrase is really up to you, but here are just a few instances where you may choose to paraphrase:

  • To clarify short sentences or passages from a source
  • To break down a larger passage or quote from a source for clarification
  • When you want to use the source as evidence to prove your argument but do not want to use direct quotations
  • When you want to reword someone else's ideas
  • When you want to take notes on a certain source while maintaining the original meaning of the source
  • When you want to explain images from research such as charts and graphs

How to paraphrase

female student takes notes
Paraphrasing when note-taking or studying is an excellent way to simplify complex concepts. Photo by Studio Romantic.

Since paraphrasing can be difficult, we've devised a step-by-step guide for you to follow. This will help simplify the process as you simplify your source material.

  1. Read the section of text, carefully: This may seem like a no brainer, but you should always begin by selecting the section of the text you wish to paraphrase and reading it.
  2. Reread the source, carefully: We may sound a bit redundant with all this "reading carefully" instruction, but it's essential that you use close-reading skills to deduct what is being said. Have you ever read something without reading it, like when you're skimming a paragraph but you're thinking about something entirely different, so it's basically like you read nothing? Save the skimming for another day.
  3. Understand what you're reading: It's essential that you understand what you're reading. This why we keep directing you to read carefully. Again, this is not a time to get distracted. You can skim material without actually reading it, but this will lead to mistakes in paraphrasing and even potential plagiarism. This is why we said paraphrasing requires analytical thinking and writing skills. If you find that you're in over your head with the source material, we suggest looking at alternative sources you understand more readily, or you could read up more on the particular source you are determined to understand. Either way, understanding what you're reading is essential to paraphrasing. After all, how can you reword something you don't even understand?
  4. Identify the main points: You've selected a section of the source or text you wish to paraphrase and have read it over a couple of times, ensuring that you understand the meaning. Great! Now, you should pull out the main points of the section, including any specific vocabulary or references to particular points that are essential to what the source is saying. This is what you're going to want to include in your own paraphrasing. If you find these terms or points important, then you need to highlight them in your own words. This brings us to our next step in successful paraphrasing.
  5. Rewrite the text in your own words: This may seem easy, but it can actually be quite tricky. How many times have we tried to write something in our own words, just to keep sneaking peeks at the original text? This is tempting because it's the easy way out, but unfortunately, this is also plagiarism. You want to maintain both the integrity of the original source and your own integrity, so we recommend closing the book or tab, turning the page, or covering the original source material so you can rewrite the text in your own words without being tempted to glance at the original source. You've read the material twice and understand it, so you should be able to rewrite the text in your own words. Here are a few ways you may go about this:
    1. Use similar (but not exact) language: Synonyms are your best friends here. They're a great way to retain the original intention behind certain words or phrases without using the exact language from the source. For example, if a source describes something as being "impactful", you may use the world "influential" as a synonym. "Impactful" and "influential" both allude to the noun as having some kind of effect on something else.
    2. Retain the original source's voice/attitude: If you're reading a source that conveys a positive attitude about the subject material, then you should also maintain a positive voice when rewording the material. You may be using this information to as evidence to prove or disprove your own paper's argument. Regardless of how you intend to use this source, you must maintain the integrity of the original source by maintaining a similar tone. Changing the voice of the source would mean altering the meaning behind what was already written, which is the very opposite of what you want to do when paraphrasing.
    3. Create your own sentence structure: For this, we don't mean simply putting the first sentence last and the last sentence first. Remember, paraphrasing is not just changing a few words here and then and switching around the sentence order. What we mean by this is that you can (and should!) play around with the syntax. This is a great way to paraphrase the original text without losing the original meaning. You can lengthen some sentences, shorten others, or combine similar ideas into one sentence. As long as the sentences are your own, you can experiment with how you present them.
    4. Use quotes for specific vocab: If you're reading something that has field-specific vocabulary, it's best to quote these terms or phrases instead of using synonyms. For example, it's easy and not harmful to the original text to change the word "impactful" to "influential", as we did above. However, it's not as easy to use synonyms for a field-specific vocabulary word like "biodiversity." You should use your best judgement when determining what you should keep in quotes and what you should change.
    5. Be concise: The whole point of paraphrasing is for you to break down what you have read and put it into your own words to better understand it. Don't complicate things by including new terminology or explanations. Model your paraphrasing after the original while remaining clear and concise in your language and sentence structure. If you read over your paraphrased work and it seems more complicated than the original text, then you've done something wrong.
  6. Check your work: Now that you've paraphrased the text, compare it to the original. You should ensure that you've accurately conveyed the original meaning of the text while maintaining a safe distance from the original. What we mean by this is you should check to ensure you've done an adequate job of rewording what was already written. Although you want what you have written to have a similar meaning to the original, make sure you have not unintentionally plagiarized.
  7. Cite the original source: Although this may not be your usual way of including evidence in your writing, such as providing direct quotations, you do still need to cite your source. These ideas are not originally yours. Since you got them from somewhere, make sure to give credit where credit is due. This will allow you to refer back to the source that helped you and it will provide another source for readers of your work to reference. Academia is all about sharing information to expand knowledge and resources.

Although we've provided you with a comprehensive, step-by-step guide on how to paraphrase, you may still be scratching your head. That's okay! It's normal to struggle with paraphrasing. If you need additional help, you can use this tool. This paraphrasing tool allows you to insert a block of text from a source you're trying to paraphrase and to choose from a variety of tools that will best paraphrase the text. For example, you may be worried about paraphrasing because it can morph into plagiarism if you are not careful. Fear not, there is a tool for that! Simply paste the text into the tool and choose "Plagiarism Remover." This will paraphrase the original source to ensure you are not plagiarizing.

Examples of paraphrase

Now that you know how to paraphrase, we figured we would provide you with some of our own examples of paraphrase. We will show you the do's and don't's of paraphrasing, so you know if you failed or succeeded in your mission.

  • Original: In some studies, coffee has been proven to expand the life of human beings.
  • Bad paraphrase: In some studies, coffee has been proven to extend the life of humans.
  • Good paraphrase: Studies have shown that coffee can extend human life.

So, what made the bad paraphrase bad? Notice how we only changed one word: "expand". We changed "expand" to "extend" but this is not enough. We plagiarized the rest of the sentence, so this is not paraphrasing. What makes the good paraphrase good? Notice how we maintained the point of the original sentence, that coffee has been shown to add years to human lives, but we did more than just change a single word. Let's take a look at another example.

  • Original: Covid-19 is an airborne virus and may result in a stuffy nose, coughing, slow heartrate and breathing, and in some instances, a fever.
  • Bad paraphrase: Covid-19 can be an airborne virus which results in a stuffy nose and cough, a fever, and breathing problems.
  • Good paraphrase: Covid-19 can spread via airborne particles and can result in a variety of symptoms including, but not limited to, fever, respiratory issues, and nasal congestion.

Notice how our bad paraphrase changed a few words and terms but is mostly too similar to the original sentence. Also, the bad paraphrase creates ambiguity where there is none. The original states, "Covid-19 is an airborne virus" and the bad paraphrase states "Covid-19 can be an airborne virus." This is especially dangerous in medical/science writing!

Our good paraphrase changed the sentence structure, so our paraphrase ended up being longer than the original sentence, which is fine. We condensed symptoms like "coughing" and "slow heartrate and breathing" into "respiratory issues" and changed "stuffy nose" to "nasal congestion." This is an example of properly paraphrasing a source. We maintained the main ideas of the original sentence while using our own words and sentence structure.

Give it a try

Now it's your turn to try paraphrasing! Whether you're gathering evidence for your next English essay or jotting down notes to study for your next chemistry exam, try to paraphrase the source material. Not only will this help you simplify what you're reading, but it will also provide you with excellent practice for your analytical thinking and writing. It forces you to think analytically and creatively, stretching those mind muscles to think for yourself and reflect your own learning in what you write!

Header photo by SecondSide.

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