How to Paraphrase Anything (The Right Way)

Ever see those pictures of two almost identical images (like the one below) where your only task is to spot the differences between them?

two images of captain james cook memorial globe with minor changes
“Captain James Cook Memorial Globe and High Court, Canberra” by jjron, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The images are so similar that it’s nearly impossible to find even the most minute change.

If you paraphrase incorrectly, you’ll end up with the written version of these images, and your paraphrase could very well end up looking indistinguishable from the original text–a near-quotation, but without quotation marks.

This is definitely not the result you want.

You know you need to put your research in your own words. But, uh, which words? And how, exactly?

We know you have questions. So without further ado, here’s how to paraphrase the right way.

A Brief Definition of Paraphrasing

Put simply, paraphrasing means that you’ll express the meaning of a given text by rewriting it with your own sentence structure and word choices.

black and white image of hand flipping through dictionary pages

You might believe that you should quote everything when writing a research paper, but paraphrases should actually be used more frequently.

By explaining and analyzing the research and putting the information into your own words (as opposed to directly restating the words of a source), you’re demonstrating that you understand what you’ve read and what you’re writing about.

Remember, when you’re restating the words and/or ideas of someone else, you still need to give credit to the source through citation. (Read The Stress Free-Guide to APA Essay Format and The Stress-Free Guide to MLA Format (8th Edition) to learn more about proper citation.)

How Not to Paraphrase

Do not, I repeat, DO NOT simply change a few words and call it a paraphrase.

Changing a few words is plagiarism, not paraphrasing.

Here’s a quick example of paraphrasing gone wrong.

Take a look at the following original quote about spotting the differences in images:

“Dan Simons, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says that’s because if we spotted everything, we’d be unable to focus our attention. So our brain fails to log details it deems ­unimportant. When we flip back and forth trying to find them, we can’t because we never noticed them in the first place” (Airhart).

Here’s an example of a plagiarized paraphrase:

Dan Simons, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign psychologist, states that’s because, if people noticed most things, they couldn’t focus their attention. People’s brains don’t remember details they think are ­unimportant. Thus, when they flip back and forth between pictures, they can’t find them because they never noticed them in the first place (Airhart).

This is an example of plagiarism because the writer simply changed or omitted a few words and changed the instances of first person to third person. The ideas aren’t expressed in a different style or sentence structure. (I’ve placed the new wording in bold to help you identify the changes.)

Here’s an example of a correct paraphrase:

Psychologist Dan Simon asserts that people cannot spot the differences between images because their brains simply do not notice every detail. People look at the big picture in order to focus their attention. Thus, when they try to spot the differences in images, they cannot because they did not originally see them (Airhart).

Notice that this example correctly paraphrases the original quote. It expresses the same meaning as the original but does so by using the writer’s own wording and style.

If you’re looking for a few more examples to help you see what correct paraphrasing looks like, check out this post.

If you’re thinking that this is all well and good but you need a few tips on how you can paraphrase anything for your own paper, keep reading.

How to Paraphrase The Right Way

man giving a thumb's up for proper paraphrasing

Now you know that you shouldn’t just change a few words and call it a paraphrase. So what exactly can you do to avoid plagiarism and paraphrase the right way?

Here are three proven strategies.

Strategy #1: Consider how you would explain the text to someone who hasn’t read it

Let’s say you’re writing a paper about how your brain processes images.

Now let’s say that your audience (which might be a general reader, your teacher, or even your mom) hasn’t read the article you’re citing in your paper. How would you explain the information to that person? What core ideas would you need to include in order to paraphrase the ideas expressed in the article?

In order to paraphrase the article (or its key ideas), you need to read the article thoroughly to understand the big picture and to understand the writer’s focus. (Don’t skim to pick out a phrase or sentence that you can paraphrase just to paraphrase something and prove to your prof that you used sources when writing your paper.)

Once you have a clear understanding of the article, you can restate the information in your own words.

Keep in mind that it’s okay to use some of the same terminology. For instance, say you’re writing about the brain and processing images. You’ll need to use words like “retina,” “cornea,” and “lens,” even if the original author used them too.

Using these types of words is acceptable (and not plagiarism). Why? It’s wording that’s specific to the discussion of the eyes and brain and how people process images.

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Strategy #2: Take notes, set them aside, then write the paraphrase based on your notes

Taking notes is an excellent strategy. It will not only help you remember information but also help you understand it more completely. After all, if you have to write it in your own words, you have to understand what you’re writing about.

Keep in mind that the purpose of this type of note-taking is to be able to paraphrase information. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll never need to refer back to the original piece for clarification.

Thus, while you take notes, it’s always a good idea to include page numbers (or time stamps if you’re paraphrasing a video). Those notes will help you find the information again if you need it.

If you’re paraphrasing a professional journal article:

If you’re writing a research paper, chances are you’re using lots of lengthy articles. You know the type: professional journal articles with 15 (or more) pages, 12-word titles, and lots of scholarly, 10-letter words.

It can be hard (even impossible) to remember everything in such a detailed and complex article, so as you read, annotate the article or take notes on a separate page.

This process will enable you to remember the main points and identify the sections you want to incorporate into your paper. That will then allow you to paraphrase using your own sentence structure and vocabulary. Without the article right in front of you, you won’t be tempted to use the writer’s language or style.

pile of pens and notecards for annotating articles

If you’re paraphrasing literature:

If you’re assigned to read a piece of literature for a class but you don’t yet know what you’ll be writing about in your analysis, take notes on significant components of the story. (Literary elements, such as character development, theme, symbolism, and imagery are usually good choices.)

If you already know what you’ll be writing about before you start reading, keep in mind the purpose of your essay as you read.

If your goal is to write about the theme(s) or motif of a novel or short story, your notes should, of course, focus on points that reflect the theme or motif. The same is true if you’re writing about character, symbolism, imagery, or any other literary element.

You might also want to use this strategy to take notes on long passages of dialogue. This will help you capture the conversation (or monologue) without needing to refer back to the text.

If you’re paraphrasing a video:

If you’re watching a video in class, you may have no choice but to take a ton of notes. You likely won’t be able to watch the video again. But if you’re watching it outside of class, you can stop the video to take notes as needed.

Watching a documentary or educational video is much like reading a professional journal article. These videos are often packed with facts, figures, and technical terms. When taking notes, look for key points and arguments, just as you would when writing about an article.

Watching a movie is essentially watching a story or novel. So take notes on the same types of things (plot, character, imagery, theme, etc.) that you would when reading literature. Your notes will make it much easier to later write about or analyze the movie.

Strategy #3: Read the original, set it aside, then write the paraphrase

woman with glasses reading book before paraphrasing

Should you need to paraphrase something shorter—such as a brief article, conversation, or advertisement—first read it a few times. Then set it aside to paraphrase the content.

This strategy also works well if you want to paraphrase a shorter section of a longer piece.

Don’t cheat and actually look at the original as you write the paraphrase, though.

The whole point is to write the paraphrase without the temptation of the original staring back at you. If the original is out of sight, you’ll be forced to use your own wording and style to express the ideas (and that’s the whole point of a paraphrase, right?).

Paraphrasing Practice Makes Perfect

If paraphrasing isn’t your thing and you’re struggling to effectively incorporate paraphrases into your writing, try a few practice runs before actually doing it in a graded assignment.

You might try picking random passages from articles or books, or try paraphrasing another essay (like these in our essay library). You can also review these essays as examples of how to paraphrase. (Have some extra time on your hands? You could even look up the sources cited in the example papers. Then you could compare the original quotes to the paraphrased text.)

When you’re putting something in your own words, there’s always the risk of introducing unintended grammar or punctuation errors. And sometimes the transitions into and out of paraphrasing are a little bumpy at first—that’s okay, and we can help.

Kibin editors are available 24/7 to help you polish your paraphrasing and any other concerns in your writing.

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