Written by Joanna Kimmerly-Smith

As if the research process isn't hard enough—finding relevant and reliable sources, reading and interpreting the material, and selecting key quotations/information to support your findings/arguments—academic writers and students are faced with the additional stress of ensuring that they have documented their sources properly. Failure to do so, whether intentionally or unintentionally, could result in plagiarism, a serious academic offense.

To avoid charges of plagiarism, you must not only document your sources correctly using an appropriate style guide (e.g., APA, Harvard, or Vancouver) for your reference list or bibliography, but you must also handle direct quotations and paraphrasing correctly. That is, you need to use in-text citations, and you need to learn not to rely too heavily on the source material when paraphrasing.

As mentioned in our previous article on plagiarism, "simply taking another writer's ideas and rephrasing them as one's own can be considered plagiarism as well." Paraphrasing is acceptable if you interpret and synthesize the information from your sources, rephrasing the ideas in your own words and adding citations at the sentence level, but it is NOT acceptable if you simply copy and paste large chunks of an original source and modify them slightly, hoping that your teacher, editor, or reviewer won't notice. Passing off another's work as one's own is a form of intellectual theft, so researchers and students must be scrupulous when reporting others' work.

You might be familiar with all this. Still, you might be asking, "How do I paraphrase a source correctly without running the risk of unintentional plagiarism?" For many writers, especially those who are unfamiliar with the concepts of a particular field, learning how to paraphrase a source is daunting.

That's why we've written this article: to provide dos and don'ts on how to paraphrase. We'll start with an overview of citing your sources, and then we'll provide a list of dos and don'ts, followed by some strategies for paraphrasing properly.

Quoting versus Paraphrasing: What's the Difference?

When learning how to paraphrase, you first need to consider whether you should be paraphrasing a text or quoting it directly.

When you find the perfect quote from a reliable source that fits your main topic, supports your argument, and lends authority to your paper but is too long (40+ words) and complex, use one of the following strategies:

1)    Direct quotation. Introduce the quote with a signal phrase (e.g., "According to Ahmad (2017) . . .") and insert the entire quotation, indicating the text with quotation marks or indentation (i.e., a block quote).

  1. Omissions and editorial changes. If you only need to use parts of a long quotation, you can insert an ellipsis (. . .) to indicate omissions. You can also make editorial changes in square brackets [like this]. Keep in mind that you need to reflect the author's intent accurately when using this strategy; don't change important words in a quotation so that it fits your argument better, as this is a form of intellectual fraud.

2)    Paraphrase. Demonstrate that you clearly understand the text by expressing the main ideas in your own unique style and language. You still need to provide an in-text citation for both quoting and paraphrasing.

Now that you understand quoting versus paraphrasing, let's look at the dos and don'ts of paraphrasing.

Dos and Don'ts of Paraphrasing

DO Understand When to Quote and When to Paraphrase

Direct quotation is best for well-worded material that you cannot express any more clearly or succinctly in your own style. (It's actually the preferred way of reporting sources in the arts, particularly in literary studies.) Shortening a long quote is a great way of retaining the original phrasing while ensuring that the quote reads well in your paper. However, direct quotations are often discouraged in the sciences and social sciences.

Paraphrasing is best used for long portions of text that you can synthesize in your own words. Think of paraphrasing as a form of translation; you are translating an idea in another "language" into your own language. The idea should be the same, but the words and sentence structure should be totally different.

DO Understand the Purpose of Paraphrasing

If you think that paraphrasing is about rewriting ideas from someone else's work so that you can avoid thinking for yourself, you are mistaken. As a student or researcher, your job is to demonstrate that you understand the material you've read by expressing ideas from other sources in your own unique style, adding citations to the paraphrased material as appropriate. The purpose of paraphrasing is to draw together ideas from multiple sources to convey the information to your reader clearly and succinctly.

DO Understand the Text You Are Paraphrasing

When you paraphrase, be sure that you understand the text clearly; otherwise, you could run the risk of relying on the original source text too closely. The whole point of paraphrasing is that you are interpreting the information you researched for your reader, explaining it as though you were speaking to a colleague or teacher. That is, paraphrasing is a skill that demonstrates one’s understanding of a text.

DON'T Start Paraphrasing by Picking up a Thesaurus

This might shock you, but thesauruses are NOT the answer when learning how to paraphrase. Why? Because using a thesaurus to swap out a few words here and there from an original source is a form of patchwriting, which is a type of plagiarism.

You shouldn't have to resort to a thesaurus unless you are completely unsure about what a word means, although, in that case, a dictionary might be a better tool. Ideally, you should be able to use clear, simple language that is familiar to you when reporting findings (or other information) from a study.

The problem with using a thesaurus is that you aren't really using your own words to paraphrase a text; you're using words from a book. Plus, if you're unfamiliar with a concept or if you have difficulty with English, you might choose the wrong synonym, resulting in a paraphrase like this: "You may perhaps usage the erroneous other word."

This is a common mistake among writers who are writing about a field with which they are unfamiliar and among writers who do not have a thorough grasp of the English language.

DON'T Copy without Quotation Marks

If you choose to keep a few phrases from the original source but paraphrase the rest (i.e., combining quoting and paraphrasing), that's okay, but keep in mind that phrasing from the source text must be "reproduced in an exact manner within quotation marks." Direct quotations are more than three consecutive words copied from another source, and they should always be enclosed in quotation marks or offset as a block quotation.

Did you know that copying portions of a quote without quotation marks (i.e., patchwriting) is a form of plagiarism—even if you provide an in-text citation? If you've reworded sections of a quote in your own style, simply enclose any direct quotations (three words or more) in quotation marks to indicate that that the phrase is not your own.

DON'T Paraphrase Too Closely

When learning how to paraphrase, you need to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate forms of paraphrasing. The Office of Research and Integrity, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, puts it this way:

Taking portions of text from one or more sources, crediting the author/s, but only making 'cosmetic' changes to the borrowed material, such as changing one or two words, simply rearranging the order, voice (i.e., active vs. passive) and/or tense of the sentences is NOT paraphrasing.

True paraphrasing involves changing the words and syntactical structure of the original source. Keep reading for strategies for paraphrasing properly.

Paraphrasing Strategies

Write down Paraphrases of a Source on Note Cards

In an article on how to paraphrase, the Purdue University Online Writing Lab suggests that you read the source text carefully and "write your paraphrase on a note card." You can then compare your version with the original, ensuring that you've covered all the key information and noting any words or phrases that are too closely paraphrased. Obviously, your note cards should be labeled with the author(s) and citation information of the source text so that you don't lose track of which source you used, and you should note on the card how you plan to use the paraphrase in your essay.

If you are a visual learner, the benefit of this strategy is that you can visualize the content you intend to paraphrase. Because a note card is a tangible object, you can physically arrange it in an essay outline, moving the right information to the right paragraph so that your essay flows well. (If you're not sure how to write an outline, check out our article.) Plus, having a physical copy of paraphrased information makes it harder for you to accidentally plagiarize by copying and pasting text from an original source and forgetting to paraphrase or quote it properly. Writing out your paraphrase allows you to distance yourself from the source text and express the idea in your own unique style.

Paraphrase from Your Own Point-Form Notes on a Source

Jerry Plotnick from the University College Writing Centre at the University of Toronto provides a similar strategy for how to paraphrase. Plotnick advises that you take point-form notes of text that you want to use in your paper. Don't use full sentences, but "capture the original idea" in a few words, writing down the name of the source.

This strategy sounds similar to the note card idea, but it adds another step. Instead of just reading the source carefully and writing your complete paraphrase on a note card, Plotnick recommends using point-form notes while researching your sources and then using those notes to paraphrase the text later when you are writing your paper. Like hand-writing your paraphrases on a note card, taking notes and then coming back to them later will help distance you from the original source, allowing you to forget the original wording and use your own style.

Here's how to paraphrase using Plotnick's methods:

  1. Convert the ideas from your notes into full sentences.
  2. Provide a reference.
  3. Go back to the original source to ensure that (a) your paraphrase is accurate and (b) you have truly said things in your own words.

Practice Two-Step Paraphrasing: Sentence Structure and Word Choice

In an article on how to paraphrase by the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the first two strategies are acknowledged—taking notes and looking away from the source before you write your paraphrase. The authors suggest a two-step strategy for paraphrasing: change the structure first and then change the words. Let's break down this process a bit further.

Strategy Breakdown: Paraphrasing Sentence Structure and Word Choice

Understand Basic Sentence Structures

Sentences in English have two main components: a subject and a predicate. The subject is who or what is performing an action (i.e., a noun or pronoun), and the predicate is what the subject is doing (i.e., a verb). Sentences can be simple, compound, complex, or compound-complex. Here are some examples:

  • Simple: It was difficult.
  • Compound: It was difficult, but she knew there was no going back.
  • Complex: Although it was difficult, she knew there was no going back.
  • Compound-complex: Although it was difficult, she knew there was no going back, so she kept calm and carried on.

Once you have identified the structure of the original sentence, you can reconstruct it using one of the different types of sentences illustrated above.

Vary the Use of the Active and Passive Voice

You can also change the passive voice to the active voice, or vice versa.

  • The active voice is structured like this: Subject + Verb + Object (e.g., She learned how to paraphrase.).
  • The passive voice is structured like this: Object + "To Be" Verb + Past Participle (e.g., How to paraphrase was learned by the girl.).

See how awkward the passive sentence example is? It's best not to force a sentence into an unnatural sentence structure. Otherwise, you'll end up with Yoda-speak: "Forced to learn how to paraphrase the girl was." (Did you like my unintentional "force" pun?)

Vary the Sentence Lengths

Another way to distinguish your paraphrase from the original source is to use different sentence lengths. Often, scholarly articles are written using long, compound, complex, or compound-complex sentences. Use short sentences instead. Break down complex ideas into easy-to-understand material. Alternatively, you can combine several ideas from the source text into one long sentence, synthesizing the material. Try to stick with your own style of writing so that the paraphrased text matches the writing style of the rest of your document.

Vary the Word Choice

Once the sentence structure of the original source is sufficiently different from the original sentence structure, you can replace the wording of the original text with words you understand and are comfortable with. Paraphrasing isn't meant to hide the fact that you are copying someone else's idea using clever word-swapping techniques. Rather, it is meant to demonstrate that you are capable of explaining the text in your own language.

One handy article on word choice by the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill lists some strategies for successful word choice. While this applies to academic writing in general, the "questions to ask yourself" are also applicable to paraphrasing.


In summary, paraphrasing is not simply swapping a few words; it is taking ideas and explaining them using different words and a totally different sentence structure. It has a greater purpose; it shows that you've understood the literature on your subject and are able to express it clearly to your reader. In other words, proper paraphrasing not only shows that you're literate but also that you are familiar with the ideas in your field, and it enables you to support your own research with in-text citations.

If you need writing help, you might consider an editing and proofreading service, such as Scribendi. While our essay proofreaders cannot paraphrase your sources for you, they can check whether you've cited your sources correctly according to your target style guide.

Image source: Bruno Martins/Unsplash.com

Let us perfect your paper while adhering to your guidelines.

About the Author

Joanna Kimmerly-Smith

Joanna's passion for English literature (proven by her M.A. thesis on Jane Austen) is matched by her passion to help others with their writing (shown by her role as an in-house editor with Scribendi). She enjoys lively discussions about plot, character, and nerdy TV shows with her husband, and she loves singing almost as much as she loves reading. Isn't music another language after all?

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