Paraphrasing is the process of writing someone else’s ideas in your own words. Being skilled at paraphrasing makes you a very good essay writer.
Good paraphrasing shows your teacher that you actually understand a concept and are able to explain it without support.
You need to know how to paraphrase to get top marks.
Unfortunately, the bottom 25% of students are languishing in the bottom of class exactly because they don’t know how to paraphrase!
The biggest problems with paraphrasing tend to be:
- Your paraphrasing is awkward and makes your work hard to read; or
- You haven’t paraphrased well, and your writing is too much like the source text.
With the rise of plagiarism checkers like Grammarly’s plagiarism checker, the skill of paraphrasing is increasingly important.
Definition of Plagiarism
‘Plagiarism’ is the word we use to explain when someone has copied the exact work of someone else and claimed it as their own.
What Happens if you don’t Paraphrase?
If you’re caught poorly paraphrasing text you can end up failing your course or, even worse, being called up to an academic misconduct disciplinary board on plagiarism charges. You’ll get a dressing-down from stern-looking jaded professors on power trips. You don’t want to find yourself there.
Why is it Hard to Paraphrase?
Many students struggle to know how to paraphrase. It can be hard to rephrase ideas. Once they hear something, they tend to repeat it in the exact same words. Unfortunately, this isn’t how essay writing works!
Students from some Asian countries often find paraphrasing extra hard. In many Asian cultures, it can be considered disrespectful to change someone else’s word. In fact, it makes sense to want to represent someone accurately in order to show them respect!
However, remember that in Western universities paraphrasing is a must.
Students with English as a second language also often struggle with paraphrasing. These students not only have to interpret something written in English, but they then have to find another way of saying the same thing in English.
I empathize with this struggle!
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Below are some actionable tips to make paraphrasing easier.
1. Never use the Synonyms Function in Microsoft Word
Never, ever, use the Synonyms function in Microsoft Word. Students often think that if they can change five or six words in a sentence to a synonym (a word that has the exact same meaning) then they have paraphrased and will avoid plagiarism detection. This doesn’t work.
Using the synonym function in Microsoft Word makes your sentences much, much harder to read. Don’t use it.
Avoid Using the Synonyms Finder on Word
Nearly every time students use the synonyms function the sentence ends up being very awkward to understand.
Just because two words mean the same thing, it doesn’t mean that they are interchangeable.
In the English language there’s usually one word that fits in a sentence. Every other synonym for that word would just sound weird and awkward in that sentence.
Your marker is nearly always much more skilled at the English language than you are and they know when a word just doesn’t fit right.
If you swap a natural word for an awkward word, you’ll end up with your marker re-reading your sentences to try to understand what you mean. As soon as that happens, you’re annoying your marker and sending them a signal that you don’t quite understand.
As soon as that happens, you’re annoying your marker and sending them a signal that you don’t quite understand.
So, when you start using synonyms, you start to lose marks.
2. Never Copy and Paste Text
Never, ever, copy and paste text.
The minute you start copying and pasting your text you are heading down the path of plagiarism.
This is not how to paraphrase! I know it is tempting to copy and paste text. We often do it with the best of intentions.
Sometimes a sentence just seems so perfect at explaining something that you copy it and paste it in your essay plan with the intention of changing the words later on.
However, when you copy and paste text one of three things will happen:
1. You’ll find it harder to paraphrase later on.
When it comes time to paraphrase, you don’t want to actually have the sentence that you’re paraphrasing in front of you. It creates a mental block that makes it harder to phrase the same concept in a new way.
In Point 5, I explain how paraphrasing is about re-phrasing ideas, not sentences. This means you should focus on explaining an idea in your own way, rather than moving words around in a sentence. If you’re not looking at the original sentence while writing, you’re less likely to plagiariaze it.
2. You’ll end up accidentally leaving the text word-for-word.
I’ve made this mistake before.
You copy and paste a sentence you think explains an idea really well. Then, you come back to it the next day and forget whether it was you who wrote that sentence in your essay draft or someone else.
Sometimes, sentences that were written by someone else make their way into your writing and you totally forget that you were intending on paraphrasing the sentence. Avoid this by never copying and pasting the sentence in the first place.
3. You’ll end up turning the copied text into a quote.
I have spent years in faculty lounges talking with colleagues. I’ve spent years double-marking colleagues’ work, too.
Something I’ve picked up on is that about 80% of all university teachers hate quotes.
If you want to avoid using quotes, ban yourself from copying and pasting text altogether.
There are better ways to take notes than copying and pasting. The first two pieces of advice were about what not to do. The next few tips are about how the students who get the top marks use paraphrasing to ace their essays.
3. Write Notes in Short Bullet Points Only
When reading your assigned readings (usually textbook chapters or journal articles), you should make sure you take notes.
How to Take Notes for Paraphrasing
One of the key ways to take notes in a way that will help improve your paraphrasing is to write notes in short bullet points only. Avoid writing full sentences, and stick to writing notes that are reminder phrases or signposts for you to come back to. The shorter the notes, the better. Aim to use less and less words while still having enough information to re-construct the idea.
An example of this strategy is to write down key words only that pop out of a text. Let’s say you’re wanting to take notes on a paragraph about things that impact how students understand a concept. Here’s the original paragraph:
“There are multiple variables that can impact students’ understandings, but key among them are prior knowledge. Prior knowledge has a major influence on what and how much students learn, and provides learners with an explanatory structure to communicate and organize the world (Fiorella & Mayer, 2016; Shuell, 1992).
However, this prior knowledge can contain incorrect conceptual understandings, which persist even after instruction (Smith, diSessa & Roschelle, 1993).”
If you were to take effective notes on this paragraph that will jog your memory later on but will also help you to avoid plagiarism, your key words you’ll jot down should be:
- Impacts on understanding: prior knowledge
- Prior knowledge – helps organize thoughts
- Prior knowledge – often incorrect
- Source: (Golightly & Nottis, 2010)
You will want to take these notes and jot them down in a notebook or word document. These three bullet points will form the basis of your paragraph on “impacts on students’ understandings of concepts” when you start writing your essay.
Also remember to always keep a record of where you got this information from so you can reference it in your essay.
Point 5 below will show you how to reconstruct these notes into a paragraph.
4. Leave Five Minutes between Reading and Writing
Close your original source and leave at least five minutes between reading the work and writing about it.
It is very important that you actually close your source and put it away. If it’s a physical book or printout, put it in a drawer. If it’s a pdf document on your computer, close it completely.
The reason you don’t want your source within eyesight is that you want to make absolutely sure that you don’t actually have the original written sentences in your possession when writing your paragraphs. This will help make almost certain that you don’t plagiarize the source text.
This will help make almost certain that you don’t plagiarize the source text.
If you wait five minutes between note taking and writing, you will forget the exact way the source paragraph was written. This will prevent you from recreating the structure of the original text.
You want to wait five minutes is to make absolutely certain you forget the exact way the source paragraph was written.
The average human mind can only store about 7 pieces of information in working memory at any one time. In those 5 minutes between reading and writing, you’ll likely erase your working memory several times.
You might check a Facebook message, make a phone call or put out the washing. Your mind will also probably start wandering, as minds do. This is good – you want to forget the original writing.
In those five minutes, your brain will be actively storing the original idea of what you wrote, but deleting the structure around which you collected the idea.
This brings us to one of the key points of paraphrasing: paraphrasing is really about re-forming an idea, not a sentence.
5. Use your Bullet-Point Notes to Re-Construct Full Paragraphs
After you have left at least five minutes between note taking and writing, you’re ready to start paraphrasing the idea.
Your bullet point notes you took (see above, Point 4) should be enough to re-write the idea that you read about.
Remember when I said that the human brain can only keep about 7 things in working memory at once? I’ll bet that (without scrolling back up the page), you’ll not be able to repeat word-for-word what was written in the paragraph we are about to paraphrase. That’s because between points 3 and 5, there was a pause where new information filled your working memory and pushed out the old information.
Now you’re ready to use your bullet point notes to re-construct the idea that “prior knowledge impacts upon understanding”. Let’s look back at our notes:
- Impacts on understanding: prior knowledge
- Prior knowledge – helps organize thoughts
- Prior knowledge – often incorrect
Use Bullet Points when Taking Notes
The use of bullet points means that we saved the ideas but discarded the original sentence structure. It’s going to be hard to plagiarize the original text now, even if we wanted to.
You’re going to want to write a clear, detailed four-to-six sentence paragraph based upon the three points above. If you want to learn how to write the perfect paragraph, you might want to read our page on Eleven Top Paragraph Mistakes Most Students Make (and how to fix them).
I’m going to move forward here assuming you’ve read that page and know that paragraphs should start with a topic sentence and follow-up with explanation and example sentences.
Our sentence’s topic is that prior knowledge impacts understanding. Our first line might be:
Sentence 1: Prior knowledge is one primary impact upon university students’ understanding of a concept.
Then, we want to follow-up with some facts that we can glean from our bullet point notes. We might use bullet point number 2 to say:
Sentences 2 and 3: Prior knowledge is a way in which we organise our thoughts. We access prior knowledge about information that we gathered in the past and stored in our memory in order to make sense of the present.
Bullet point number 3 will bring our sentence home:
Sentences 4 and 5: However, Golightly and Nottis (2010) argue that prior knowledge is often incorrect, which means that the way we sort and interpret new knowledge may be negatively impacted. In these situations, prior knowledge can be a barrier to university students when they are learning a new idea that conflicts with old ideas that they have.
Let’s now compare the original paragraph with our new, paraphrased paragraph:
New Paraphrased Paragraph
There are multiple variables that can impact students’ understandings, but key among them are prior knowledge. Prior knowledge has a major influence on what and how much students learn, and provides learners with an explanatory structure to communicate and organize the world (Fiorella & Mayer, 2016; Shuell, 1992). However, this prior knowledge can contain incorrect conceptual understandings, which persist even after instruction (Smith, diSessa & Roschelle, 1993).
Prior knowledge is one primary impact upon university students’ understanding of a concept. Prior knowledge is a way in which we organise our thoughts. We access prior knowledge about information that we gathered in the past and stored in our memory in order to make sense of the present. However, Golightly and Nottis (2010) argue that prior knowledge is often incorrect, which means that the way we sort and interpret new knowledge may be negatively impacted. In these situations, prior knowledge can be a barrier to university students when they are learning a new idea that conflicts with old ideas that they have.
To summarise points 3 to 5, the important thing to remember is that paraphrasing is about extracting the key ideas you want to talk about without extracting the sentence structure of the original source. You can do this by taking notes in short, keyword bullet point form; putting away the source text and waiting five minutes; then re-writing the information into full sentences using only the bullet point notes that you had taken.
Bonus Advice: Use Grammarly’s Plagiarism Checker!
Even if you think you know how to paraphrase and you’ve done a great job of paraphrasing, it’s always good practice to use plagiarism checker software before submitting essays.
My personal favorite is Grammarly’s Plagiarism Checker.
With more and more universities using plagiarism checker software, it’s increasingly important to cover your own back by checking your work yourself first.
You will need to know how to paraphrase to get top marks. In this post, I’ve outlined five key tips on how to paraphrase that will get you on the path to growing your marks. Follow these simple, actionable steps for your next essay.
Let’s take one last look to summarize the key points:
- Never use the Synonyms Function in Microsoft Word
- Never Copy and Paste Text
- Write Notes in Short Bullet Points Only
- Leave Five Minutes between Reading and Writing
- Use your Bullet-Point Notes to Re-Construct Full Paragraphs
Once you’ve mastered paraphrasing, you might want to move on to learning how, when, and how often to quote with our post on Seven Steps for using Quotes.