Paraphrasing with Purpose
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Curt pushed away from his computer in frustration. He felt like he’d been staring at the same words on the screen for so long they’d lost all meaning. Curt couldn’t understand how he was supposed to paraphrase sources instead of using direct quotes without using the author’s words or words with the same meaning. Instead of giving up, Curt visited Purdue Global’s Writing Center and went to the Cranium Cafe, where he knocked on the virtual door of an available live writing tutor. His question for the tutor was straightforward; “How do I properly paraphrase another author’s work?”
The tutor said, the first step to understanding how to paraphrase is understanding what is meant by paraphrasing. The tutor gave a definition of paraphrasing as expressing someone else’s idea in your own words (APA Style, 2022), and noted the definition was itself a paraphrase. A writer cannot simply replace the original author’s words with words that have the same meaning, or with the same sentence structure, and have a paraphrase. The writer must express the original author’s idea(s) in their own words. The tutor provided Curt with an example:
Source: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” (Einstein, para. 1, as cited in Brainyquote.com, n.d.).
The above example is a direct quote from the original author, in this case, Einstein. The example below is an attempt by the writer to paraphrase by replacing words with synonyms or phrases with similar meanings.
Plagiarized: When you aren’t able to explain something easily, you haven’t fully comprehended what it means (Einstein, as cited in Brainyquote.com, n.d.).
The tutor explained to Curt, before he could ask out loud, that often when students hear “in your own words,” they take the meaning literally and write “their own words” without actually paraphrasing, as was shown in the example. To paraphrase effectively and avoid plagiarism, a writer must use their own words to express the original author’s idea, not simply replace words in the author’s original sentence. The tutor continued to explain that Curt must understand the original author’s idea to understand how it supports his claim. They told Curt to try not to think of it as “saying what the original author said with different words,” but rather as expressing the original author’s idea as He understands it. Curt wrote a paraphrase from the quote in the example and compared it to the tutor’s example:
When you can teach it, you understand it (Einstein as cited in Brainyquote.com, n.d.).
The tutor continued to explain that the purpose of using a paraphrase in academic writing is to show how you understand the original author’s idea as it relates to your own. Often, students skim research for language that mentions their topic and attempt to integrate it into their writing. Without understanding the idea behind the quote, they are left attempting to replace words instead of expressing and explaining the idea. They’ve borrowed the words without understanding the idea behind them. Writers avoid this pitfall by reading their sources carefully to gain a clear understanding of the topic and ideas expressed by the original author. Once they understand the original author’s ideas, they can borrow a specific idea and integrate it into their writing by writing the idea HOW they have come to understand it from their research.
The tutor provided Curt another example in the chat, this time of a correct paraphrase:
Source: “School funding in Texas is in turmoil. State lawmakers slashed more than $4 billion from education this school year — one of the largest cuts in state history — and more than 12,000 teachers and support staff have been laid off” (Sanchez, 2011).
Paraphrase: Many schools in Texas are already struggling financially since the $4 billion cut to its education budget in 2011 (Sanchez, 2011).
In the example above, the first statement is from the original source. The second statement is a paraphrase. Notice that the student provided a summary of the information in the source, choosing to exclude unnecessary information, such as the number of layoffs. This keeps the paraphrase concise and focused on only the information they need to support their point. The student shows they understand the information in the original source by only providing the information, the amount of the education budget cut, relevant to supporting their topic.
Once Curt was clear on the definition of a paraphrase, the tutor left him with some tips for understanding the evidence being borrowed from a source:
- Read the original source several times (be sure to understand the quote/idea in context the author presents it).
- Use context clues to understand the author’s meaning for words and topics you don’t know or understand.
- Look up words you don’t know.
- Without looking at the original, write the idea(s) in your own words.
- Next, write how it connects to the topic of your paragraph.
- Check for consistent meaning.
Curt thanked the tutor for the help understanding what a paraphrase is and for the tips on understanding sources. The tutor then encouraged Curt to practice paraphrasing and to visit the Writing Center’s APA Style and Using Sources resource page for more examples and tips. The tutor then invited Curt to return for the next step to understand paraphrasing and learn How to USE and not just HAVE evidence in his writing.
Look out for the next blog post in this series to learn how to use evidence in academic writing.
APA Style. (July 2022). Paraphrasing. https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/citation
Brainyquote.com. (n.d.). Albert Einstein quotes. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/albert_ein