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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
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What Does it Mean to Paraphrase?

People use the skill of paraphrasing in their everyday lives, even if they are unaware of it. When recounting an event or conversation where one cannot remember exactly what was said, he or she will recount the gist of the meaning in his or her own words. Essentially, this is paraphrasing. Simply, to paraphrase is to take information from a source and put it into one’s own words. In general, paraphrases are approximately the same length as the original information, which distinguishes them from summaries, which are shorter than the original.

There are three main types of paraphrases:

  • Paraphrasing to bring clarity. Paraphrasing is frequently used to clear up any possible misunderstandings from the original text in the context of the student’s paper.
  • Paraphrasing to organize. This technique can also be used in order to reorganize the ideas from the original source material so that they make more sense in the context of the student’s paper.
  • Paraphrasing for abstract or concrete understanding. One might also paraphrase in order to allow the source material to apply to a broader range of ideas or information, or to narrow its scope to a more concrete example.

What Steps to Take When Paraphrasing a Text

Paraphrasing is a relatively straightforward task. Some steps to take to accomplish an efficient paraphrase are as follows:

  • Ensure a deep understanding of the source material. This includes vocabulary, background, and all essential information from the text. The ability to paraphrase well hinges on a complete understanding of the material presented.
  • Restructure the selected information into your own words. This means completely recreating phrases and sentences, not merely changing one or two words.
  • Review to make sure the original ideas from the source material are still in tact.
  • Cite the source in order to let readers know where the original idea presented in the paraphrase is from.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the act of using someone else’s ideas, words, or work and passing them off as one’s own. This could be as blatant as copying and pasting from a source into a paper, or more subtle where the words and phrases might be changed, but the original source is not credited. Plagiarism is a serious academic offense and can have significant consequences.

Paraphrasing correctly helps students to avoid plagiarism, because when done according to the steps above, the original idea has been kept in tact, but the words have been transformed into something that came directly from the student. A proper citations and works cited page ensures that credit is accurately attributed to the original author, thus avoiding plagiarism.

Citing Your Paraphrased Work

Some may question why citations are needed within academic writing if the material has been completely rewritten into the student’s own words in a paraphrase. This is because the citation references not just the words from the source material, but the ideas that came from that material as well. Despite those ideas being rephrased, they still came from the original author or source. When a student cites a source in his or her paper, it allows the reader to understand that the information contained in that portion of the paper came from the student’s research. The works cited page tells the reader more details about the publication of the original material and where to find it. There are different styles of citations, the most common being MLA (Modern Language Association) and APA (American Psychological Association). Different disciplines typically favor one style, and it often depends on the course and the teacher or professor as far as which style will be used. Each style of documentation also has specific formatting rules for a works cited page at the end of an academic paper that should be followed upon completion of a final copy.

When conducting research or reading for the purpose of writing, it is imperative to keep notes and detailed information on the source material being used. This prevents inaccurate citations or accidental plagiarism when drafting.

Photo of man working on laptop and taking notes in a notebook.

Simple Paraphrasing Examples

Keep in mind that a paraphrase could be used for a single line of text, multiple lines, or even for a paragraph if needed. See the table below for some simple paraphrasing examples:

Original Text Paraphrase MLA Citation APA Citation
“Now it happens that I am a fluid sort of an organism, with sufficient kinship with life to fit myself in ‘most anywhere.” From The Road by Jack London. London believed himself to be the type of being that could adapt with its circumstances to find a place to feel at home. (London). *If this were found in a physical version of the book rather than an e-book, the page number would also be noted, i.e. (London 56). (London, 1907) *If this information came from a physical book, the page number or numbers would be noted with a p. or a pp. (London, 1907, p.56)
“Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me.” From “What to the Slave is the 4th of July,” a speech by Frederick Douglass in 1852. Douglass illuminates the stark contrast of the meaning of independence day for white people and people of color in America in the mid-1850s. He calls out the hypocrisy of the audience celebrating freedom when so many did not have freedom in America.  He makes it clear that the audience belongs to a privileged group to feel a sense of pride in celebrating independence, as so many people of color were still enslaved. (Douglass) (Douglass, 1852)
“The nicest part is being able to write down all my thoughts and feelings; otherwise, I’d absolutely suffocate.” From The Diary of Anne Frank, 1944 In regards to her diary while in hiding during World War II, Anne expresses her gratitude for the ability to get her thoughts out in writing, and that if she could not, she did not know how she could breathe. (Frank) *If this were found in a physical version of the book rather than an e-book, the page number would also be noted, i.e. (Frank 47-48). (Frank, 1944) *If this information came from a physical book, the page number or numbers would be noted with a p. or a pp. (Frank, 1944, pp 47-48)

When paraphrasing, especially with powerful works like that of Frederick Douglass, it is important to maintain the original tone and meaning. This is a statue of Douglass in Harlem, New York.

Photo of Frederick Douglass statue in Harlem, NY

Lesson Summary

To review, paraphrasing is the act of taking one’s understanding of source material (articles, novels, poems, etc), and rewriting that information in his or her own words while maintaining the original ideas. This is done in approximately the same amount of words as the original, as if it were significantly shorter, it would be considered a summary. Paraphrasing is typically used for three reasons, resulting in three types of paraphrases: those that bring clarity, those that organize ideas, or those that broaden or limit the scope of application. Keep in mind the steps to creating an efficient paraphrase:

  • Fully understand the source material
  • Rewrite in one’s own words
  • Cite the original source
  • Use proper citations and works cited formatting in the teacher’s assigned style, MLA or APA.
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