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Paraphrasing: what it is and how to do it

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

Recently, I asked researchers in both Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences what they understood by paraphrasing in their theses. ‘Summarising’ or ‘putting someone else’s argument into your own words’ were the most popular suggestions, with the thesaurus key to finding the words to swap in. But while summarising is a useful first step to paraphrasing, it’s not enough. Swapping the author’s words for your own, even with the help of the thesaurus, won’t save you from plagiarism.  Indeed, although the thesaurus is a useful writing tool, it can also be a trap.

Don’t rely on the thesaurus

First, let’s spring the trap. English is a rich, nuanced language. Swapping one word for another subtly – and sometimes not so subtly – changes the meaning. Take the adjective ‘sweet’. In the thesaurus, associated with ‘sweet’ we have, among other choices, ‘saccharine’. But ‘sweet’ and ‘saccharine’ are not interchangeable. In a human context, sweet is complimentary, saccharine pejorative. For the unwary, using the thesaurus as a swap-shop is a perilous business. It’s also unnecessary.

Link the source with your work

In a PhD, dissertation or essay, paraphrasing is taking the nub of someone else’s argument and relating it to the point you are making. In other words, it’s a relationship. How you paraphrase will be dictated by the relationship between your source’s point and your own, with your voice predominant. Particularly when referencing a number of texts, summarising can result in a list when what you want is a connection, and swapping words distorts your own voice.

Look at this text, which I wrote using the name Nerin:

The field of education has always presented opportunities for women. As early as the eighteenth century, commercial schools offered women the chance not just to teach but also to own and run schools as businesses. Reading, writing and arithmetic augmented by the ‘polite accomplishments’ of ‘French, dancing, drawing and music’ (Skedd 1997:101) ensured the popularity of girls’ schools among the century’s growing middle classes, whose daughters’ accomplishments acted as marriage bait to snare potential aristocratic connections. It seems ironic that successful schools served up girls as dependent wives while offering the women running the schools financial independence. For women novelists, too, girls’ schools were fertile ground for money making, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Jane Eyre’s experience at Lowood and Sara Crewe’s treatment at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies contributed to both novels’ immediate financial success. [1]

[1] Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847) and A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1905)
Skedd, S. (1997) ‘Women teachers and the expansion of girls’ schooling in England, c.1760–1820’ in Barker, H. and Chalus, E. eds. Gender in Eighteenth-Century England (1997), Harlow, Essex: Adison Wesley Longman Ltd., pp101–125

What might we need from the text above? Only what relates to our immediate point. In a persuasive text, the most effective paraphrasing, just like the most effective quoting, has to be selective. Let’s relate the source to different chapter themes.

Paraphrase 1: education and independence

Chapter theme: What was the relationship between education and women’s independence?

…Nerin observes that the increase in demand for girls’ education led to an increase not just in women teachers but in women owning and running schools as businesses. That is not all. She suggests that girls’ schools were also ‘fertile ground’ for women novelists and cites the experience of Jane Eyre at Lowood and Sara Crewe’s experience at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies as ‘contributing to both novels’ immediate financial success’ (2021:1). However, she misses an important point: for both businesswomen and women novelists, any independence generated by financial success would immediately vanish if they married.

Every bit of this paraphrase (italicised) relates to the chapter’s point. But see how it’s incorporated into my text, my voice emerging strongly through the verbs ‘observes’, ‘suggests’ and ‘cites’. All of these verbs, with their different nuances – along with the comment ‘that is not all’ – invite the reader to listen to me, as does my final comment.

Paraphrase 2: education and class

Chapter theme: What was the relationship between women’s education and class?

…Nerin contends that ‘the field of education has always offered opportunities for women’ and points out that from the eighteenth century, women could turn themselves into businesswomen, a middle-class occupation, by seizing the opportunity to run their own schools. For climbing up the class ladder, she underscores the importance of female accomplishments: music, drawing and dancing acted as ‘marriage bait to snare a potential aristocratic connection’ (2021:1). For both educators and educated, it seems that education offered women opportunities to rise above the class into which they were born.

Again, consider the verbs: ‘contend’, ‘points out’ and ‘underscores’, all say ‘listen to me’, while the incorporation of short quotes allows the reader to hear the original author’s voice while making sure my own isn’t drowned out. The final sentence relates the paraphrasing directly to my point and says firmly ‘though I’m referencing another’s thoughts, this is my text’.

Paraphrasing and plagiarism

In a persuasive text, a good paraphrase slides smoothly into your argument, with your voice connecting the author’s point with the one you’re making.  Plagiarising – inserting another author’s work without acknowledgement – will not slide smoothly into your argument. Even if you’ve found synonyms for every word the original author wrote, the text will jar, and supervisors’ highly sensitive plagiarism alarm bells will ring loud and clear.

Tips for effective paraphrasing

To avoid inadvertent plagiarism and make paraphrasing work well, try the following method:

  1. Read the source text carefully, twice.
  2. Note all the reference details.
  3. Close the text and walk away—put physical distance between the text and yourself.
  4. When you return, without opening the text ask yourself:
  • What is the author telling me?
  • What is she telling me that’s relevant to my argument?
  • How can I use the relevant points to advance or enrich my own argument?

Only return to the source text when you’ve got satisfactory answers to all three questions. This method will reduce the risk of plagiarism and ensure that you’re using the valuable technique of paraphrasing to smart and productive effect.

27 January 2022

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