How to Paraphrase Correctly

Paraphrasing is an important skill for any writer to have. Simply put, it is the means through with which authors convey information that they learned from outside sources in their own words. 

Simply put, all writers, in particular non-fiction writers, need to be able to do this. When you work with outside sources, it’s crucial that you are able to incorporate their information but retain your own voice.

This is especially crucial for students, who are routinely tasked with writing essays and other papers that incorporate outside material. Proper paraphrasing can be the difference between a good grade and an accusation of plagiarism.

However, paraphrasing is also deeply misunderstood. Many writers, including many students, hold some strong misconceptions about paraphrasing and how it’s supposed to be done.

Part of this due to the way plagiarism detection tools have changed writing. Students, seeking to avoid plagiarism issues, often become too focused on the specific words and not the concept of paraphrasing.

To help dispel these misconceptions, today we’re going to look at both why paraphrasing is important and how to do it properly.

Why Paraphrase?

There are many reasons why paraphrasing is a crucial skill. 

The first and most obvious is that, as an author, you should limit the amount of content you quote directly. Though there is no hard rule about how much of a paper should be quoted, most agree that no more than about 10%-15% of the paper should be direct quotes.

This means that you should only quote when the quote adds something to the essay or paper. This could be because the information is particularly important or especially well-stated by the original author. Either way, overusing quotes dilutes the power of quotation and diminishes your own voice.

However, there are also benefits to the author. By paraphrasing properly, you, the author, also show that you have learned the information. By taking the information and writing it in your own words, you not only show a mastery of the knowledge, but the process itself can help you learn it.

Finally, paraphrasing is an opportunity to present the information to a new audience. For example, if the source material is a complicated document, such as a legal document or a research paper, paraphrasing is a way to take the information from it and present it to a layperson audience that may not have full understanding of the language the source material uses.

In short, paraphrasing allows you to pull information from a wide variety of sources and then present that information to your specific audience, regardless of the audience the source material was meant for.

Important First Steps

The first and most important step in properly paraphrasing is to take a cleanroom approach to your writing. Do not mix your notes and research with your original writing. Any time you do copy and paste outside material into your writing, quote and cite it immediately. 

If your notes and original writing get mixed up, there’s no hope of being able to paraphrase correctly.

Second, you need to understand that, even with a good paraphrase, you are still required to cite the source of the information and, once again, it’s best to do so as you write. Waiting until you are editing the work just opens up the possibility of making mistakes and leaving out key citations.

If you have questions about what you are required to cite, please speak with your instructor or editor. If you aren’t able to do and are a student, seek out your school’s writing center/lab or their student help center.

Without these steps, no amount of proper paraphrasing will help. Contrary to what many believe, plagiarism doesn’t just cover the copying of words without attribution. Copying ideas, concepts and facts without citation can, just as easily, lead to allegations of plagiarism.

How to Properly Paraphrase

With those initial steps taken, paraphrasing is actually fairly simple:

  1. Read the original passage carefully and try to focus less on its words, but its meaning. What is the core concept? What is the key piece of information?
  2. Set the original aside. Put it somewhere that you can’t look at it to avoid subconsciously copying it.
  3. Write that core concept or information in your own words. If it helps, pretend that you are telling your friend or your teacher about what you just learned. Use your voice, 
  4. Compare what you wrote to the original material. If you find that there’s a great deal of similarity in the word choice, try it again. Also, see if your words are carrying roughly the same meaning as the source.
  5. Add the citation for the source material. 
  6. Repeat the process for the next piece of information that you want to share.

To be clear, this process can be anything from a part of a sentence to whole paragraphs of a paper as appropriate. The matter is simply how long it takes to explain the information you need to convey from that one source.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that paraphrasing is not simply “rewriting someone else’s words.” Paraphrasing is not rewriting, it’s putting the ideas and information in your own words. The words should be wholly original and only the information should remain the same.

Still, paraphrasing is a confusing and complicated topic. To make matters worse, what separates a good paraphrase from an outright plagiarism is often a separation of degrees and can be very subjective.

As such, the best source to go to if you need help with paraphrasing is either to your instructors, your school or your editor. Talking with the people that will be assessing your work is crucial to understanding what is expected of you with your writing. 

Still, if you want additional information about how to paraphrase correctly, including some examples, I would highly recommend both the Purdue Online Writing Lab and The University of New South Wales guides. 

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