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Paraphrasing: How to Do It Right

Nov 20, 2013 - Posted to  Writing in General
There are few things teachers and professors abhor more than grading papers and essays replete with quotations. While not against the rules, too many quotes is a sure sign that a student put in a minimal amount of effort, nothing more. He/she simply relied on the text of the author to write the paper for them, which is not why students are asked to write essays.
What instructors truly want to see is that their students grasped the meaning of the original text, which can seldom be done by quoting alone. A welcomed and effective way to demonstrate that you understand what an author is saying is to put his/her ideas into your own words. Better known as paraphrasing, this indispensable essay writing tool is often misused.

Potential pitfalls

When correctly applied, paraphrasing can help you take greater control of your essay. Instead of cluttering up pages with undistinguished quotes, you can express the author's main ideas in your own language. This can increase the readability and flow of your essay and make it more personal. But when a paraphrased passage is too close to the original, it may result in a charge of plagiarism.
Defined as the practice of taking another's ideas and passing them off as you own, plagiarism may be more nefarious when it is premeditated, but it still applies to paraphrased passages. In other words, intent is not a mitigating factor if you follow a source too closely without quoting it. With that in mind, let us review the most common mistakes inexperienced essay writers make when paraphrasing.
  1. Thinking citations solve everything. When you borrow material and change it up a bit, but do not quote it, that's plagiarism! It doesn't matter if you include an acknowledgement or not. You must always add quotation marks to indicate that similar passages came from borrowed sources.
  2. Borrowing here and there. When you copy complete phrases from a passage and change everything else, the result may still be a section that is too close to the original. To deal with this issue, it is always best to use quotation marks to denote these phrases.
  3. Shared language. When writing about technical or scientific subjects, it is quite common for essayists to borrow too liberally from a text when paraphrasing. Because many of the terms and phrases that are used in these subjects are highly specialized, it is often best to simply quote them rather than trying to restate them.

How to paraphrase a source

They might seem similar, but there's a big difference between paraphrasing and rewriting. A rewrite generally follows the same sentence structure and merely changes the most conspicuous terms and phrases. But a paraphrased passage should alter the sentence structure significantly by breaking up long sentences, combing short ones, and shortening phrases or sayings for clarity and effect. Here are a few simple tips on paraphrasing every essayist can employ.
  1. When you find a passage you want to paraphrase, try to understand it as a whole, instead of taking copious notes. Remember, you don't want to use the author's language, but merely his/her ideas.
  2. Just as with quotes, it is possible to paraphrase too often or too much. In fact, there are many times when a simple summary is preferable to a paraphrased passage. The difference between the two is that the summary focuses on several important points, while the passage is concerned with only one.
  3. Think about what it means to put something into your own words. How, for example, would you describe a particular passage to someone who is unfamiliar with the original source? If you can do this, then you can paraphrase anything without having to worry about plagiarism.
  4. You don't have to paraphrase everything. Inexperienced essayists are far too liable to treat paraphrasing as an all-or-nothing tool. Always remember that you can put quotation marks around phrases and other shared language that you don't want to or can't change.

Paraphrasing methods

  1. Read the text, then write. As we mentioned, rewriting is not paraphrasing. If all you do is change a few words and keep the original sentence structure, nine times out of ten your passage will be too close to the original. By reading the text several times and then putting it aside, you will get a good feeling for it without remembering exactly what the author wrote. You can then restate in your own language and writing style. Nine times out of ten, you will get a passage that is markedly different from the original.
  2. Take abbreviated, general notes. Instead of copying the passage verbatim, summarize it by jotting down the main points in your own words. Then put it aside and come back to it a few days later. Whether you know it or not, odds are the notes will help you fully grasp the passage. You can then add to it a bit as you write your draft.
  3. Change the structure. The simplest way to avoid rewriting is to start at a different place in the passage, i.e., not at the beginning. You can start in the middle, or anywhere you like, and combine, shorten, or adjust the sentence structure.
  4. Change the words. Leaving language unchanged without quoting it is a surefire way to court a charge of plagiarism. Use the best thesaurus you can find (many are available online) and replace original phrases, expressions, and terms with synonyms that have the same meaning.

Final steps

When you have a rendition that reads well and sounds like you wrote it, make sure you compare it with the original source. Your passage should sound completely different, but should still express all of the information found in the author's text. If you have any shared language or technical phrases that you did not change, make sure you use quotation marks to enclose them. Last but not least, remember to always record the source of the paraphrase so that you can include it on your works cited page.
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