The Whys and Hows of Paraphrasing

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Paraphrasing, rewording of spoken or written content, is a necessary skill for every writer. This post discusses the purposes of process of paraphrasing.

Why Paraphrase?
Quoting directly without attribution is plagiarism, an offense against those responsible for crafting the original message. In a scholarly setting, it constitutes academic dishonesty, which when committed by students is punished with a failing grade, suspension, or expulsion; it also compromises their future in academia. In the case of faculty or academic researchers, it signals a lack of integrity and can ruin one’s career.

Even with attribution, however, extensive direct quotation in course assignments or in scholarly research is discouraged; some sources recommend that no more than 10 percent of an academic paper or article consist of exact wording from a research source. In both trade books and scholarly publishing, the same benchmarks seems appropriate; journalism is more accepting, but direct quotation consisting of more than 25 percent of an article (except in the case of a question-and-answer interview) is likely to be regarded as excessive.

Why should paraphrasing predominate? The purpose of academic writing is not to exactly reproduce the findings and interpretations of others; it is to report findings and interpretations and produce commentary on them, extrapolate and evaluate, and make new inferences, as well as to synthesize multiple sources. Therefore, academic writing should summarize the work of others, reproducing content verbatim only when a strikingly original conclusion, or a statement that should be clearly attributed as exact wording, merits inclusion in the secondary work.

In journalistic writing, quotations often add color and vibrancy to an article. Precise reproduction of some of a subject’s or source’s comments conveys the person’s character and personality or lends authority. However, just as with scholarly prose, direct quotation should be the exception, not the rule; the reporter’s task is to describe an event or issue or to create an impression for readers who were not present during an incident or an interview.

Paraphrasing also allows reorganization of sources’ or subjects’ statements — not in order to manipulate the comments with the intent to mislead, but to improve the narrative flow or place randomly uttered thoughts in coherent chronological order. This technique also enables writers to impart information that is valuable or integral but was not expressed well.

How to Paraphrase
Paraphrasing is simple: Read a passage from a source, or examine your notes from an interview, and imagine you’re sharing the information with others — which is exactly what you’re doing. Strive to find a simpler, more direct way to describe what you’ve read; it’s acceptable to use the same word now and then, and you may occasionally employ partial direct quotations to reproduce key phrases, but always remember that your goal is to report, not reproduce. And though you may consider the source content better stated than what you can produce, be confident that your paraphrase will be good enough.

How would you paraphrase a passage like the first sentence of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address? Here’s the source material: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Lincoln’s strategy for placing the event he refers to in chronological context is eloquently poetic, but a paraphrase need only provide the context: “Almost a hundred years ago” is sufficient.

The nouns identifying the actors, the locale, and the result are easily replaced with predecessors (or, more colorfully, forebears or “those who came before us”), land, and country, and “brought forth” can be rendered formed: “Those who came before in this land us formed a new country” says the same thing as the rest of the first phrase of the original.

“Conceived in liberty” can be rewritten “created while fighting for freedom.” The paraphrase of the final phrase, meanwhile, could consist of the words “inspired by the idea of human equality.”

The result, not as stirring, but serviceable, is reportage that says, “According to the speaker, almost a hundred years ago, those who came before us in this land formed a new country while fighting for freedom and inspired by the idea of human equality.” However, the restatement unnecessarily retains the syntax and is wordier than necessary (and wordier than the original text). Keep trying: “The speaker said that our forebears, believing in human equality, formed a new country here when they fought for freedom almost a hundred years ago.” If you wished to insert at least a few words of the original wording, you might delete the phrase about freedom and throw in “conceived in liberty,” set off by commas and framed in quotation marks, after here.

As you paraphrase, keep in mind that the key to the process is distillation of the source material to its essence — with or without commentary, depending on whether interpretative content is expected from the paraphrasing writer.

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5 thoughts on “The Whys and Hows of Paraphrasing”

  1. Thanks, Mark,

    As a teacher of middle/high school English, the skill of paraphrasing (without plagiarizing) is paramount and often difficult for students to learn. I’m always looking for articles like this to share with them.

    Just one note. In the fourth paragraph under How to Paraphrase, a correction is needed in the last sentence. The ‘us’ is misplaced following ‘land’. I believe it should read “Those who came before [us] in this land formed a new country”…”

    Thanks again. I love your daily tips and recommend them often to my students and peers.

    Blessings! J

  2. Yes, thank you, Mike.

    Your advice here is valuable and most appreciated.

    I’m also a teacher – I may actually ask my students to paraphrase this piece 🙂

  3. Today’s generation of university students is called the generation of copy-paste. They copy-paste everything for the sake of spoiling their lazy butt (read: mind). The ability to effectively and efficiently paraphrase texts is indeed a great help in solving this butt-lazyness.

    Thank you for sharing this important and practical solution. I believe millions of students, thorugh their teachers, could make use of this posting.

    All the best,
    Agus Satoto – Bekasi, West Java

  4. A good rule of thumb, I think: When paraphrasing an idea unique to a particular author, i.e., not representing knowledge common to the subject such as one would find in an encyclopedia entry, or when the wording of the paraphrase is sufficiently close to that of the original author, the work and author need to be cited.

  5. Wii you please dwell on how to write a summary? I ‘ve benenfited a lot from your DWT for years. Thank you very much.

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