Paraphrase is the restatement, in fresh language and structure, of a brief passage — usually a sentence or two — from a source. This chapter will explain how to paraphrase well, and why it's worth your time to do it.

Why paraphrase?

Problem: You're writing a paper. You're using sources. How do you make your paper speak your voice, your ideas, instead of just stitching together the voices of your sources?

You do it by paraphrasing. Instead of quoting, use fresh words — your voice — to restate key ideas from your sources.

Problem: You've found sources for your paper and you've located key passages in those sources, but you're not certain you really understand those passages. How can you make sense of them?

You do it by paraphrasing. Instead of just copying and quoting the key passages, force yourself to understand your source well enough that you can say it in your own words. In an article on multitasking, you see a sentence like this, and you think it's an important one:

"If this sounds more like an affliction than a resume booster, that's because research has shown again and again that the human mind isn't meant to multitask. Even worse, research shows that multitasking can have long-term harmful effects on brain function (Lapowsky)."

But what do you do with this passage? You could copy it and put quotation marks around it, but why? There's nothing special about the wording, no particular expression of the ideas that is unique to the writer or compelling for your audience. Your only reason for quoting, then, would be because it is easy to copy and cite. What is easy, however, is seldom rhetorically effective; it seldom enhances your text and increases your readers' esteem for you. It's much more effective to paraphrase it; that way you can ignore the opening phrase, which your readers don't need, and blend the ideas into your text using your own voice:

Not only are our brains not designed for multitasking, but we can actually injure them by trying to do it (Lapowsky).

These two motivations for paraphrase — keeping your text in your own voice, and understanding your sources — lead to a third good reason to paraphrase: to put yourself in charge of your own writing, so that you are speaking not only in your own voice but from your own mind. When your text just stitches together quotations from sources, you're not speaking for yourself. When you paraphrase, though, you have taken possession of the material from your sources. You now "own" it. You understand it, and you can speak it yourself.

What does good paraphrase look like?

Good paraphrase has the following features:

  1. It accurately expresses the ideas and information from a short passage — typically 1-3 sentences.
  2. It expresses the source's ideas and information in fresh language. Quotation is used only to introduce keywords.
  3. It does not include patchwriting; the rephrasing of the source goes beyond just changing a few words or reordering the sentence.
  4. It may be shorter than, as long as, or longer than the sentences it is rephrasing.
  5. The source it is paraphrasing is cited.

How does good paraphrase happen?

Good paraphrase restates a passage from a source, in fresh language. Here's the trick: "fresh language" doesn't mean just changing a few words or verb tenses so that the passage isn't identical. It means actually saying the ideas from the source in a new voice.

Good paraphrase happens when you read a source passage until you understand it; that understanding is essential. If you don't understand it, you can't say it in your own voice; all you can do is fiddle with the wording.

It's very difficult (almost impossible!) to write good paraphrase while looking at the source. As long as you're looking at the passage you're paraphrasing, you won't be able to say it yourself; you'll just be trying to figure out how to change the words. Try this instead: read the passage; turn away from the source; and write what it says. Don't look at the source until you're finished. Then, once you have a draft of your paraphrase, go back to the source and make sure what you wrote was accurate. If it wasn't, make necessary revisions. This technique isn't easy; it takes practice. As you practice, though, you'll find yourself getting better and better at paraphrase — and at reading comprehension.

In most cases, good paraphrase does not include quotation. If you're stitching together quoted passages, you're avoiding plagiarism, but you're not paraphrasing.

Source passage

If you need to multitask, then minimize the switching cost by bundling related tasks together.

Stitched quotations

Goodman recommends that you "minimize the switching cost." This can be done "by bundling related tasks together."


Goodman says that multitaskers can be more successful when they are working on similar tasks.

Yet sometimes the source uses words for which there are no synonyms. These might be technical language; statistics; lists of mundane items; or keywords that vividly capture an idea. These should not be paraphrased; instead, quote (and cite) them the first time you use them in your text. Afterwards, just use them; you don't need to quote and cite them over and over within a single text that you're writing.

An important question to ask yourself before you decide to quote technical language: is it "technical" because it has no synonyms, or is it "technical" just because you don't understand it? If your answer is the latter, you need to work more with the material, so that you can paraphrase it. Don't quote a sentence just because you don't understand it!

When using statistics from a source, the numbers cannot be paraphrased and do not need to be quoted (though the source must be cited):

Source passage

As an example of the attraction of texting, a study of education majors found that although 73% thought it was unprofessional to text in class, 79% responded that they did so anyway.


Ophir, Nass, and Wagner mention a study that found texting so irresistible that 79% of surveyed education majors do it in class, even though 78% disapproved of it (27).

Sometimes the material you need from a source is a list. You may be able to paraphrase it — usually by generalizing about it rather than finding synonyms for each item in the list. Sometimes, however, the list contains mundane items — names of states or people, for example - that cannot be paraphrased. In this case you must copy the list exactly, quote it, and cite it.

Keywords aren't the same as technical language; keywords are particular words or phrases that are central to the information in the source. Sometimes they are quite ordinary, such as "personal computers" in the example below. Deciding what is and isn't a keyword is usually a matter of interpretation and critical reading; not everyone will agree on the identification of keywords. You should be conservative about identifying keywords, keeping in mind that they are special, central terms. If you're finding several keywords in every sentence you're paraphrasing, you've gone too far.

When you have read your source carefully and have identified keywords, you should use them rather than finding paraphrases for them. If they are ordinary language, such as "personal computers," you don't need to quote them:

Source passage

The personal computer provides a compelling source of classroom distraction and has become commonplace on university campuses.


Personal computers, say Sena, Weston, and Cepeda, are often seen in college classes, yet they also draw students' attention away from instruction (25).

Exercise 1: Study the following paragraph and identify the keywords or phrases that seem central to the information in the source and that cannot usefully be stated in a different way:

The Web is perfect for indulging our multitasking, which is really nothing more than the rapid switching of tasks, because it promises something new and fast. Science suggests that the secret to thriving in an age of universal distraction isn't to avoid distractions, but to distract ourselves smartly. The National University of Singapore found that workers who spend 20 percent or less of their time browsing the Web are 9 percent more productive than those who never go online at all. Most of what we know about attention suggests that our focus comes with strict limits. Sure, we can binge on a project, but working too hard for too long results in a hangover of productivity. Short bursts of attention punctuated with equally deliberate breaks are the surest way to harness our full capacity to be productive (Thompson).

Avoid patchwriting!

In the middle-school version of paraphrase, the writer makes surface changes to sentences from the source, by rearranging words, changing their grammatical structure, or using synonyms. This is patchwriting. It isn't really paraphrase, because it isn't restating ideas in the writer's own voice. It's just the writer tinkering with the source sentences, hiding the fact that they're being copied. Writers patchwrite when they're working too quickly with source material, not slowing down enough to think about what the source is actually saying. Writers also patchwrite when they don't understand what they are reading. It's impossible to restate what you don't understand!

Exercise 2: Paraphrase each of the following sentences, avoiding patchwriting. The author of the first two sentences is Jabr, and the source is an unpaginated Web text. The author of the third and fourth sentences is Zickhur et al, and the sentences are from page 13 of that source.

  1. The video brings into focus an important question: How exactly does the technology we use to read change the way we read?
  2. How reading on screens differs from reading on paper is relevant not just to the youngest among us, but to just about everyone who reads — to anyone who routinely switches between working long hours in front of a computer at the office and leisurely reading paper magazines and books at home; to people who have embraced e-readers for their convenience and portability, but admit that for some reason they still prefer reading on paper; and to those who have already vowed to forgo tree pulp entirely.
  3. The patrons who participated in our online panel generally said they had learned about e-book lending at either their library’s physical branch or through direct online communication from the library. Others simply noticed the option for e-books in online catalogues by chance.
  4. Overall, our younger online panelists found their libraries’ e-book check-out process to be relatively painless; although that is not to say they didn’t have suggestions for improvement.

Select carefully

As with picking quotations (see Chapter Four), you need to choose passages to paraphrase that make specific contributions to your text. Choose passages that capture key claims your source is making; passages that support claims you are making; passages that provide alternative viewpoints to your claims; and passages that give vivid examples and anecdotes.

Language like this will help you introduce paraphrased major claims from the source:
  • (last name of source author) focuses on/establishes/argues that (your paraphrase of source claim)
  • An important/key/central claim in the (author) source is that (paraphrase)

Exercise 3: Imagine that you are writing about the need for high school classes to teach students how to read difficult texts. You find an article by Mark Bauerlein arguing that students today are not as smart as those of past generations, because of their use of digital media. Paraphrase this passage, and use the templates for introducing an important claim from the source. You may treat the phrase "three dispositions" as a keyword phrase:

Unfortunately, digital texts and tools don't help much. Complex texts pull young minds in one direction, digital diversions in another. Complex texts demand three dispositions of readers.

Establish co-ownership

The thing you now "own," the source material you have paraphrased, still "belongs" to the sources, too. You are a sort of co-owner of that material. So even though you have paraphrased and are speaking it in your own words, you need to let your audience know who the co-owners are — where the ideas and information came from.

Chapter 5 Review: Can You Say It?
Paraphrase without patchwriting

Chapter 5: Can You Say It?

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