How to Paraphrase

What your source says in a paragraph, you can say in a sentence (and your readers will thank you for doing so). This is what we mean by paraphrase— the condensation and interpretation of a source, a distillation of its most important elements. A paraphrase is nearly always more concise than a direct quote.

To paraphrase effectively, you will first have to read your source critically. Understand for yourself what the original author has to say before you interpret it for your audience. One of the advantages of paraphrase is that it can be more than a rote restatement of a source's words. You can begin to provide your interpretation of those words within the paraphrase itself. The act of paraphrase also requires you to decide what part of the source is most important to the progress of your argument. That is the part you will want to present in your paraphrase.

A Brief Example of Paraphrase

Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the pamphlet The Crisis, published by Thomas Paine in 1776:

These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.

You could paraphrase this excerpt in any number of ways. Here are two examples:

Paine encourages the people of the American colonies in the face of growing English oppression, promising that those who stand and fight will earn a "glorious" triumph and "the love and thanks of man and woman" (The Crisis, 1776).

Paine mocks those among the American colonists who wanted an easy victory over the oppressions of England, calling them mere "summer soldier[s]" and "sunshine patriot[s]" and insisting that things too easily obtained are of little lasting worth (The Crisis, 1776).

Both paraphrases are legitimate summaries of Paine's words, but each focuses on a different aspect of the excerpt. In any paper, your argument will help determine what you present in a paraphrase. Why would you choose one of the above examples over the other? What might you argue in a paper that included one or the other?

Note that both examples use direct quotes to increase their impact.

Paraphrasing Scholarly Sources

If you are citing scholarly works, you can apply a couple of strategies to find material worthy of paraphrase:

1. Look for important ideas at the beginning and ending of sections and paragraphs.

2. Take note of technical terms and any terms that are frequently repeated. If necessary, devote part of your paraphrase to defining them.

Avoiding the Demon Plagiarism

Paraphrases must be cited, since the ideas you're summarizing came from someone else. (See our section on citation or one of the references we recommend for guidance in how to cite properly.)

Remember that paraphrase involves more than minor changes in the vocabulary and word order of a source. The point of paraphrasing is to present ideas in your own words; if you aren't going to change the wording of the source significantly, you might as well quote it directly. The advantage of paraphrase is that it helps you refine your own understanding of the source and then present that understanding to your audience.

As the above examples illustrate, however, there is nothing wrong with taking a particularly vivid turn of phrase from your source and quoting in your paraphrase. You just have to make sure to set it off with quotation marks.

Incorporating Sources

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