Paraphrasing is a skill used when integrating a source’s ideas in your composition or speech. Paraphrasing has two purposes:

  1. A paraphrase presents a source’s ideas completely, but in fewer words than when directly quoting.
  2. A paraphrase allows writers to seamlessly integrate a source’s ideas into their own writing.

Consider the following example:

A student is assigned a passage from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well to read. The student decides that they want to use the following passage from the text.

Original Text

[T]he secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. (7)

The student decides that directly quoting the passage would be excessive, so the passage needs to be paraphrased instead.

Less Successful Paraphrasing

Here is the students’ first attempt at paraphrasing:

“Zinsser argues that good writers will remove words that serve no function, replace long words with short words, eliminate adverbs that have the same meaning that’s already in the verb, and revise passive constructions (7).”

Notice that the first attempt uses phrases directly from the original text instead of original writing. Remember: bad paraphrasing can oftentimes result in plagiarism. The text in red is identical (or nearly identical) to the original text.

The student revises the paraphrasing; here is the second attempt:

“Zinsser argues that good writers will remove words that do no work, replace complex word with simple ones, eliminate adverbs that have the similar denotation as the verb, and revise passive sentences (7).”

Notice that the second attempt replaces words from the original with near synonyms while maintaining the structure of the original. This is not considered plagiarism, but it serves little purpose. A paraphrasing should be shorter than the original and be written to integrate with the writer’s own text. Substituting the source’s original language with synonyms accomplishes neither goal.

Good Paraphrasing

For the student’s most recent draft of the paraphrasing, the following is written:

“Zinsser argues that good writers will revise sentences so that they are concise and so that each word both has a purpose and is easily understood by the reader. Redundant adverbs and needlessly complex words are removed to produce a more readable text (7).”

Notice that in this attempt the student has captured the main ideas of the passage without reproducing either the original structure or copying the original language.

Zinsser, William. (2001). “Simplicity.” On writing well: The classic guide to writing nonfiction (pp. 7-12). New York, NY: HarperResource Quill.

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