How (And Why) To Paraphrase

Paraphrasing is a powerful tool that allows you to do two important things simultaneously.

First, it provides a mechanism by through which you can include the ideas of other people. No writer writes in a vacuum. You’re always writing for others to read, and often, you’re writing in response to ideas you have read. Paraphrase is an elegant way to incorporate those ideas and thus enrich your writing.

Second, paraphrase maintains your unique writerly voice. When you include another writer’s words directly, as in quotation, you are letting their voice take over your work for a short time. This practice’s drawbacks may not seem obvious when thinking about a single quotation. But often, writers do not stop at one quotation: they need many quotations from several different sources. One thing leads to another, and before you know it your paper is an open mic night, and you’re the emcee. Shouldn’t you be the main act instead?

A beginning writer does not know how to quote and paraphrase effectively. An intermediate writer often knows how to quote. But an advanced writer will prefer paraphrase because of its flexibility. Experienced writers want to be able to craft their own sentences, even if the ideas behind them come from a source.

What is the difference between a paraphrase and a quotation? A quotation and a paraphrase are both methods by which a writer can use another author’s material. A quotation presents another author’s words exactly as they appear in the original source and is signaled using quotation marks. A paraphrase takes the other author’s ideas and puts them in your own words and sentence structure. You do not use quotation marks for a paraphrase, but you should still acknowledge the original author. There are several ways to do this, and we’ll discuss them below.

When should you use a paraphrase? Actually, the better question is not when should you use a paraphrase, but rather, when should you use a quotation? To maintain control over the style and flow of your piece, always try to paraphrase first. Only quote if the exact language has drama or panache: that is, you need a reason to prefer another author’s words over your own.

How do you know if you’ve paraphrased correctly? The paraphrase must be completely in your own words and sentence structure. Some writers think that by changing a portion of the original, it now qualifies as a paraphrase. Not true. Let’s take a look at some examples:

Direct Quotation:

“The language is perpetually in flux: it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time” (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style 83).

I have reproduced the exact words here and enclosed them in quotation marks. I have also used a parenthetical citation that gives the authors, title, and page number. This parenthetical in-text citation would correspond to a longer entry in a Works Cited page, Bibliography, or Reference page. The longer entry would contain the full bibliographic information, including date and place of publication.

Unacceptable Paraphrase:

The language is always in flux: it is like a living river, shifting, changing, gaining new strength from many tributaries and losing old formats in the mists of time.

As you can see, I have not put this into my own words. Most of the words are the same as Strunk and White’s original. I have merely substituted synonyms for a half dozen of the words in the quotation. This is NOT paraphrase. Most disturbing, there is no citation information here. Without citation information, the reader assumes the idea is the writer’s. In this case, that would be dishonest: this is a form of plagiarism.

Acceptable Paraphrase:

In William Strunk’s view, writers should remember that language is not a static object. Rather, it is an ever-changing, complex system. He likens it to a moving stream that is always incorporating new influences and leaving behind old ones (Elements of Style 83).

Here I incorporated Strunk’s central idea as well as his memorable metaphor. However, the words and sentence construction are my own. Most importantly, I gave Strunk credit for the idea. I signaled the start of his idea with an attributive tag (“In William Strunk’s view”), and I signaled his idea’s endpoint with the in-text citation.

What are some citation guidelines for paraphrase? There are many citation formats. Some use footnotes or endnotes, while others use a works cited or reference page combined with in-text citations. For an academic assignment, your teacher or professor will have specific guidelines in mind. When in doubt, ask. For a workplace assignment, guidelines may be established by your company or by common practice in your industry.

In general, you should acknowledge other people’s ideas if you’re using them as a source. Some people tend to believe that putting it in their own words is sufficient. It is not. Putting an idea in your own words does not mean that you thought of it.

Since a paraphrase does not delineate itself using quotation marks, you will have to make sure the reader knows where the other author’s idea begins and ends. I typically use an attributive tag (such as “According to Jones”) at the beginning of Jones’s idea. Then, I put an in-text citation or a footnote at the idea’s end.

Paraphrase is a wonderful way to enrich your writing. Both you and your readers will benefit from others’ ideas. Best of all, your writing style will remain unique to you. I hope you’ll try it.

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