Whether you are writing for the workplace or for academic purposes, you will need to research and incorporate the writing of others into your own texts. Two unavoidable steps in that process are paraphrasing (changing the language into your own) and summarizing (getting rid of smaller details and leaving only the primary points). These steps are necessary for three reasons.
First, if you used the original writer’s language without any changes, it limits your own learning; by paraphrasing and summarizing, you make a piece of information your own, and you understand it better.
Second, the original writers did not write for the audiences you are targeting; there are inevitably contents and language choices that will not necessarily work for your audience. Third, what authors write is considered to be their property, just like a coat or a car; by copying it (without giving credit), you can be accused of plagiarism.
Summarizing and paraphrasing are frequently used together, but not always. The following will give you some basic information on paraphrasing and summarizing, and then you will have the chance to reflect on appropriate paraphrasing and summarizing yourself.
As explained above, paraphrasing is making different word choices and re-arranging words in such a way that maintains the same meaning, but sounds different enough that readers will not be reminded of the original writer’s words. Here is an example, followed by inadequate and adequate paraphrases:
Example: The current constitutional debate over heavy metal rock and gangsta rap music is not just about the explicit language but also advocacy, an act of incitement to violence.
Inadequate paraphrase: Today’s constitutional debate about gangsta rap and heavy metal rock is not just about obscene language but also advocacy and incitement of acts of violence.
Adequate paraphrase: Lyrics in some rap and heavy metal songs that appear to promote violence, along with concerns about obscenity, have generated a constitutional debate over popular music.
In the inadequate paraphrase, the meaning of the original is altered somewhat: it claims that the debate is about advocacy AND violence, but it is supposed to be about advocacy FOR violence. Also, too few of the words have been changed, and the order of the sentence remains essentially the same. In the second attempt at paraphrasing, enough changes have been made so that readers would not feel that they are reading somebody else’s words.
When you are paraphrasing, there are a number of strategies you can apply:
- Locate the individual statements or major idea units in the original.
- Change the sentence structure and the order of major ideas, while maintaining the logical connections among them. For example, if the author you are paraphrasing presents a generalization and then backs it up with an example, try using the example as a lead-in to the generalization. For an individual sentence, try to relocate a phrase from the beginning of the sentence to a position near the end, or vice versa.
- Substitute words in the original with synonyms, making sure the language in your paraphrase is appropriate for your audience.
- Combine or divide sentences as necessary.
- Use direct quotations from the original sporadically, limiting yourself to quotations of the most striking or interesting language. Do not quote very plainly stated passages.
- Compare the paraphrase to the original to ensure that the rewording is sufficient and the meaning has been preserved.
- Weave the paraphrase into your essay.
- Document the paraphrase—give formal credit to the original writer(s).*
* Kennedy, M.L. & Smith, H.M. (2000). Reading and Writing in the Academic Community. New York, NY: Prentice Hall College Division.