Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you paraphrase every day ━ we all do.
It’s a skill that we see in professional settings, on TV, and in literature. Paraphrasing is an essential part of communication, but what exactly is it? And how can you become proficient in it? Fear not; we’re about to walk you through it all.
The word “paraphrase” has two definitions, depending on the part of speech it represents in the sentence.
As a verb, “to paraphrase” means “to express the meaning of the writer or speaker (or something written or spoken) using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity.” As a noun, “paraphrase” is defined as “a rewording of something written or spoken by someone else.”
Let’s look at it this way: if you were talking to a friend about what the characters said in your favorite scene of a movie, you wouldn’t repeat all of their lines word for word. Instead, you would give your version of what happened in the scene.
a rewording of something written or spoken by someone else
to express the meaning of the writer or speaker (or something written or spoken) using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity
Paraphrasing is about describing something without quoting it exactly, giving a more general description of what was presented instead.
“The weather was very rainy, so he decided to pack accordingly. He brought rain boots, an umbrella, and a waterproof jacket. Although there was heavy cloud cover, the news said it was going to lighten up by the afternoon, so he packed his favorite sunglasses.”
“He packed ahead for the rainy day, and he also brought sunglasses in case it got sunny.”
Understanding the importance of paraphrasing comes down to one thing: easy communication. When a source is paraphrased, it usually becomes more straightforward because it is rephrased and broken down in a way that is more easily digestible.
So, why is paraphrasing important? To truly answer this question, we must first understand other ways to reference information..
Paraphrasing combines the brevity of summarizing with the precision of quoting. A paraphrase shouldn’t be an exact imitation of its reference, but it should convey the original source’s intent in your own words.
Paraphrasing isn’t necessarily expected to be as brief as possible. While quotes have to be exact, and summaries are meant to be short, a paraphrase doesn’t need to be either. It just needs to be accurate.
We’re big believers in learning by doing, so let’s take a look at some examples of paraphrasing. Seeing the process in action will help you understand how it works.
Choosing to paraphrase is often a smart decision, but in academic writing and in the professional world, it should only be used under certain circumstances. Let’s take a look at when paraphrasing can and should be used.
1. Simplify Gathered Data
Often, graphs and statistics are complicated and don’t clearly state the information they are meant to convey. Paraphrasing the results or conclusions can be an effective way to communicate the importance of the data to your audience.
2. Keep Writing Concise
Many writers go into too much detail about certain topics, which can make their writing both long-winded and overly technical. Adding a quick paraphrase helps a general audience understand an idea more quickly and comprehensively without adding so much text.
3. Explain Ideas Simply
Whether you're explaining research to a friend or telling them about your favorite line in a movie, paraphrasing helps you quickly and simply reiterate the relevant information.
4. Establish Credibility
Paraphrasing an interesting quote or research finding by a prominent author can be an effective way to reel in audiences and improve the credibility of your writing by citing high-quality sources.
Paraphrasing, like most things, is a process. When determining how to paraphrase, there are a few things you must do every time. The paraphrasing steps are easy but should be followed to a T in order to ensure you’re conveying the referenced information accurately.
You can paraphrase correctly every time by following the five steps below:
Understand the Material
Read and review the source material a few times until you have a strong understanding of what it’s trying to convey.
Test Your Knowledge
Without looking at the text, write down what you remember about the general message. Be careful not to write down any parts of it that you memorized to avoid plagiarizing when you’re trying to paraphrase.
Play with Words
Play with and modify word usage, sentence structure, style, and overall flow. Make it as unique as possible while staying true to the original source intent.
Replace Mirrored Content
Compare your paraphrase with the source. Change any words or phrases that you remembered and wrote down that are too close to the original text and could be interpreted as plagiarism.
Make It Original
Consult the text to add in important details that previously you left out. Link your ideas to the paraphrased information to support your arguments in a unique way.
To improve a paraphrase, be sure to review both your writing and the reference material multiple times. Look for any ways to make the paraphrase more independent from the original text and more geared toward supporting your unique ideas with credible outside support.
To do this, follow the “Four R’s of Paraphrasing”:
Ask yourself if any of the words or phrases you used were copied too closely from the original text, and replace anything that is too similar in your paraphrase. It’s especially important to do this for longer, less commonly used words.
Changing a sentence's structure can often radically alter its tone, style, and clarity. Try varying the location of clauses, such as testing them at both the beginning and end of a sentence, to see more ways to make your writing more interesting and clear.
Some words can’t be changed. If there’s specific, unchangeable information (such as a city name or a date), you’ll need to work around that and perhaps use quotations. In these cases, it’s extremely important to focus on originality to avoid unintentional plagiarism.
Once you’ve taken note of these steps, it’s time to check it all again. There’s no harm in doing a few more reviews or revisions of your writing to mesh your ideas with those you’re paraphrasing and citing.
The three types of paraphrasing are based on the intention of the writer.
This type of paraphrasing is done to show your understanding/comprehension, usually with the intent to answer a question. If you can’t paraphrase the information clearly and easily, there is more work to be done.
This type of paraphrasing is done to explain a series of ideas or events with fewer details for a better overview of the big picture. It often involves making a numbered list or outline with a clear beginning, middle, and end to organize the information.
Paraphrasing is a great way to change the focus level of information by rephrasing it to be more abstract and big-picture or more concrete and specific. Use it to connect with different audiences to convey information in a way that will resonate with them easily.
When you’re paraphrasing, unintentional plagiarism is the biggest pitfall you can encounter.
This is because sometimes we remember the source material too well and don’t do our due diligence to recheck our paraphrases against the original. Accidental plagiarism of this kind can be avoided by double-checking our work and also ensuring we cite all outside sources, whether they are paraphrased or not.
According to the Harvard College Writing Program, there are six main types of plagiarism, four of which apply to paraphrasing. If your paraphrases don’t fit under any of these categories, you’ll be free and clear of this issue.
Your writing contains a copy of someone else's work in the exact way they wrote it.
You added pieces of someone else's work into your own without citing or giving them credit.
Your paraphrase is too similar in wording to the original source, so much so that they could be mistaken for one another.
Your paraphrase is well written but doesn’t contain a citation to credit the original author.
Paraphrasing, quoting, and summarizing are all ways to incorporate the works of others into your writing to build credibility and support for your unique arguments and ideas.
These are all important skills to learn and employ when writing and researching, but on the surface, it can sometimes be difficult to understand which is most appropriate to use. When in doubt, consult our handy table below.