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Minding Your P’s & Q’s: Writing the Perfect Paraphrase

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"I have been told last night that portions of my graduation remarks — in particular my address to the Schools of Humanities and Social Sciences — had been borrowed from certain other graduation speeches.” ~ Filipino Tycoon Manuel Pangilinan, BBC News, April 4, 2010

“[Doris Kearns] Goodwin recently acknowledged lifting from other authors several passages in her 1987 best-seller, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.  She said the passages appeared in her book by accident, the result of confusing her own notes with those drawn from other sources.” ~ “Goodwin Withdraws from Pulitzer Judging,” CNN.com, March 5, 2002

When I think of how I wrote most of my high school “research” papers, I cringe. Having procrastinated long enough that I had no choice but to make my first draft my last, I would sit at a typewriter, surrounded by opened encyclopedia volumes and other books, pulling from this and that, citing occasionally, and, if I’m honest with myself, probably plagiarizing up a storm, although that was not my intention and I didn’t think of it that way at the time.My guess is that many other readers have similar memories.

In college, I very soon learned better, but as someone who has taught writing and research to college students since 1989, I’m amazed at how little things have changed. The only differences are that students today sit in front of tabbed URLs instead of open books, and the temptations to cut corners by cutting and pasting are greater and easier to give into than ever. For whatever reasons, many of the college freshmen I’ve taught have learned little about their P’s & Q's — paraphrasing and quoting — before they get to college.

Students at DeskOur current mash-up culture and Creative Commons resources, while opening doors to amazing creative possibilities, also make the issues of proper borrowing and attribution more complex and confusing, as do famous examples of questionable research, from graduation speeches to best-selling books.

When you need to paraphrase a source, following a few guidelines can help you to avoid unintentional plagiarism as well as make you a better writer. If you are a student or a blogger or even a freelancer confused about proper paraphrasing, here is a short primer with tips to use every time you write for school or publication, including some resources for further study. 

Know What Paraphrasing Means

Paraphrasing means putting someone else’s words or ideas in your own words. All of it needs to be in your own words, not just a word here or there. If you borrow a phrase that is memorable, one that you can’t express in a better or comparable way, then put that phrase in quotation marks to show it's not your own. And here is the clincher: All paraphrases of anything that is not common knowledge still need to be cited.

The two mistakes I see students making most often is that they reword only part of the original passage, or they fail to cite the sources they have used. As an example, let’s assume that this is the original source, a sentence from a New York Times article, “The Free Appropriation Writer”:

His manifesto and Ms. Hegemann’s novel prompted the quick drawing of battle lines, coming at a time when tensions have probably never been higher between a growing culture of borrowing and appropriation on one side and, on the other, copyright advocates and those who fear a steady erosion of creative protections.

Is this an acceptable paraphrase of the above?

At a time when tensions have probably never been higher between, on one side, a borrowing culture and appropriation, and, on the other, advocates for copyright and those who are afraid of a steady erosion of creative protections, Shields’ manifesto and Hegemann's novel brought about the fast drawing of battle lines.

Parts of the sentence are re-ordered, and many words are changed (e.g., “fast” for “quick,” and “brought about” for “prompted”), but this is not just a bad paraphrase; it is not a paraphrase. Too much of the original is left intact. The original author’s basic sentence structure and phrasing are unchanged. Moving clauses about like a jigsaw puzzle does not a proper paraphrase make, nor does keeping the basic structure intact but using a thesaurus to change specific words.

This is a better attempt:

Shields’ and Hegemann’s works are good examples of the “drawing of battle lines” between those who push for greater creative and legal freedoms and those who want to adhere to more conventional standards.

Is this a perfect paraphrase? Perhaps not, but it is a paraphrase. Note that the original work would be cited at the end of the sentence, using a standard documentation style.

Thoroughly Understand the Content of the Original

Take the time to read and re-read not only the portion of the resource you wish to paraphrase, but also the entire article. Never use or cite an excerpt without understanding how it fits into the context of the greater work. Yes, this takes more time, but it means that, when you paraphrase, you are more likely to express it from a base of solid understanding than a superficial skimming. It also means your own work will be stronger and better.

In the example above, for instance, just what does the author mean by “a steady erosion of creative protections”? How you would go about re-wording this phrase depends on your understanding of it. Again, if you feel you cannot reword the phrase better, more succinctly, or even as well, then by all means use it, but put it in quotation marks, and, of course, cite it.

Another important consideration is to be as objective and true to the original author’s intent as possible when paraphrasing. For example, suppose I wrote this as a paraphrase of our sample source:

Shields’ and Hegemann’s works are good examples of the “drawing of battle lines” between those who push to do away with any ethical considerations at all and those who believe in and adhere to more conventional standards.

This version may not plagiarize specific phrases, but it skews the original author’s intent to make it seem as though he is implying that one side is less ethical than the other. If I wanted to make that point in my own piece, I would need to do so apart from the paraphrase so as to be clear that it is my opinion or conclusion.

Don’t Rush

If you aren’t sure about the legal or ethical appropriateness of your paraphrase, research, or citations, don’t press “send” or “publish post” just yet. Wait. Breathe. Give yourself the extra time you need to check again, and again, if necessary. Yes, you want to hand in your paper on time or publish your blog post today instead of tomorrow, but, in the long run, your reputation as a student or writer is much more important.

What about deadlines? What if you’ve run out of time and simply can’t check everything again or re-read the source to be sure you aren’t cutting corners? That’s probably the result of another “P” topic for another article: Procrastination. If you are in a spot when you don't have time to do a thorough check and proofing of your work, omit any sentences or paragraphs that make you feel uncertain or uneasy. Then, next time, build time into your study or work schedule for a final check and re-check. Your writing will be stronger for it, and you’ll probably sleep better, too.

Practice Paraphrasing

Good paraphrasing doesn't just happen. It takes practice. Just as professional musicians continue to practice scales even when they are famous, professional writers can practice paraphrasing and other aspects of writing throughout their career. A terrific book to start with is Writing from Sources, by Brenda Spatt. Many university websites also have some very good, free resources for more information, including exercises for practice:

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About Lisa Rivero

  • http://lisarivero.blogspot.com/ Lisa

    Joanie, doing the paraphrase right away, during the research phase, rather than waiting until the end of the writing process is a terrific suggestion.

    Linda, I agree. Waiting can be difficult, but it really does pay off most of the time. Thanks for the comments and ideas!