Paraphrasing is taking the ideas from a source and putting them in your own words. You won’t always be able or want to quote a source word-for-word, and paraphrasing is a way to relay the author’s ideas to your audience without relying on their actual language.

This skill is critical for your academic success. First, learning to paraphrase will help you better understand what you are reading. Moreover, some disciplines only use quotations rarely—and some not at all. In most academic writing, you’ll use paraphrasing more than quoting, and frankly, if you quote, you usually need to include a paraphrase anyway.

Using a Two-Part Process

First, you need to understand the passage. Of course, you need to understand the text as a whole, but to paraphrase well, you also have to make sure that you understand more precisely the ideas in the passage you want to reference. Careful reading will help you do this.

The second part is putting the passage in your own words, frequently the more difficult part. It is not enough to substitute a few synonyms—even really good ones—to paraphrase well. Instead, you have to both alter the vocabulary where possible and avoid using the same sentence structure.

Let’s unpack that a bit.

  • Alter the vocabulary. To alter the vocabulary, you need to use different words to describe the author’s point except where the specific words are necessary. Specific words to hang onto would mostly be technical language: the word itself is the most appropriate word because it is the most accurate. (Usually, this applies to nouns, but it can also apply to verbs and less frequently to adjectives and adverbs.) If the technical terms are really long or uncommon phrases, sometimes it makes sense to quote those, just so your reader knows that the phrasing comes from the author. If the words aren’t technical, you should be looking for other language.
  • Change the sentence structure. Ultimately, your sentence should not look like the original, even when you are using some of the technical language. If your reader were to read the two sentences side-by-side, they should be able to see the same idea, but not the same way of phrasing that idea.

How to do this?

To write a strong paraphrase, try the following steps:

  1. Make sure that you understand the passage.
  2. Close the book or put away the article.
  3. Do something else for five or ten minutes—perhaps work on the rest of the paragraph.
  4. Without looking back at the original text, write your paraphrase. Go ahead and add it directly to the paragraph you are working on. But DON’T look at the text again until you are ready to check your paraphrase.
  5. Check your paraphrase against the original both to make sure your paraphrase is accurate and to make sure that you haven’t written a paraphrase that is too close to the original.

Another trick I sometimes use is imagining that I am having to explain the idea in the passage to one of my sisters. Both of them are smart people, but neither of them has the kind of detailed knowledge of the topics I write about. So, I start writing my explanation to one of them. I have to put it in relatively plain language to start, but this also helps me confirm my understanding. And those explanations can produce some pretty solid paraphrases.

Example: Good Paraphrasing

Here’s an example of a paraphrase that keeps the ideas in the original source, but not the language. Notice that the paraphrase also includes citation.

Original Text

“The average cost in 2017 to install solar systems ranged from a little over $2,000 per kilowatt (kilowatts are a measure of power capacity) for large-scale systems to almost $3,700 for residential systems. A new natural gas plant might have costs around $1,000/kW. Wind comes in around $1,200 to $1,700/kw.”


Though ultimately making the case that long-term savings outweigh initial costs, the Union of Concerned Scientists points out that it costs between $2000 and $3700 per kilowatt to install different types of solar systems and between $1200 and $1700 to install wind systems. Solar and wind systems might be better environmentally, but big companies think about the money spent, especially when natural gas plants are only $1000 per kilowatt (Union).


Union of Concerned Scientists. “Barriers to Renewable Energy Technologies.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 6 June 2014,


When a writer paraphrases by relying too heavily on the existing sentence structure and vocabulary of the original, this is called “patchwriting.” Patchwriting can be considered a form of plagiarism because the writer takes the wording of someone else and claims it as their own.

Patchwriting most commonly occurs when writers keep their sources open in front of them as they write a paraphrase. It can also happen when writers memorize passages or try to write paraphrases too soon after they have put away the text. Readers are influenced not just by the ideas of writers, but also by the words that authors use to explain those ideas.

As you practice paraphrasing, you will get better at it, and it can become an excellent way to improve your understanding of difficult material. In the meantime, put your sources away, and if you find yourself patchwriting anyway, try paraphrasing your patchwriting. Every time you do it, you should find yourself a little further away from the original text.

Key Points: Paraphrasing

  • Good paraphrasing keeps the author’s idea, but changes both the words used by the author and the sentence structure.
  • If you struggle with paraphrasing, you can get better by following a few steps: make sure you understand the passage, close the source and do something else for a little while, and then write your paraphrase without looking back at the source.
  • Once you have written your paraphrase, check it against the original to make sure that you have captured the idea without relying too heavily on the language and sentence structure of the original.
  • You can add short quotations to paraphrases, particularly of technical terms.
  • Patchwriting, attempts at paraphrasing that stick too close to the original text, can be considered a form of plagiarism. Don’t look at the text when you write a paraphrase!

Text Attribution

This chapter was revised with the help of Lando Concepcion and Jude Ejiofor, students in my class during Spring 2022. Jude also provided the example of good paraphrasing.



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Reading and Writing Successfully in College: A Guide for Students Copyright © 2023 by Patricia Lynne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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