The art of paraphrasing

It is perhaps fair to say that paraphrasing is one of the most complex and difficult skills to master when it comes to academic writing. Writing for academic purposes necessarily involves reading extensively, engaging in a dialogue with other writers, and reporting this dialogue to your readers. As a writer and as someone who teachers academic writing, I am painfully aware of the difficulties paraphrasing poses to everyone, regardless your level of language proficiency and reading experience. Yet, it cannot be denied that most international students starting their courses at higher education institutions in the UK find paraphrasing particularly taxing.

Paraphrasing is often defined as putting a passage from an author into’ your own words’. But what are your own words? How different must your paraphrase be from the original? Besides that, we must remind ourselves that our students’ ‘own words’ are not necessarily the ‘words’ that are conventionally accepted as good academic English when it comes to register and style.

Some people argue that paraphrasing is a skill that develops naturally as students progress in their studies and I do believe this is just right for most of us. Not because it happens magically, but because the ability to rewrite ideas in a clear and concise way depends on how much reading you have done in your life. The more you read, the better reader you become. The  better reader you are, the better writer you become. Reading extensively helps you develop the ability to process and connect ideas in a quicker and more efficient way and gives you writing patterns to follow. Our brains seem to learn these patterns even if we are not aware of the cognitive process going on.

The problem with students is that most of the time they need these paraphrasing skills now – for the next assignment! They do not have time enough to develop their paraphrasing abilities only through reading. The EAP tutors’ jobs is to provide a sort of short-cut, crash course on paraphrasing that will help learners to deal with the immediacy of the task.

Simplistic as guided step-by-step approach to paraphrasing may be, it is a tangible beginning. It is something students can hold on to until they have time to read more and start improving their reading and writing skills though practice. Tutors faced with the task of teaching paraphrasing tend to fall into two extremes: some seem to believe that strictly following these guided steps is enough to help students to paraphrase properly whereas others just disregard them believing that all students have to do is to ‘write using their own words’. Neither of these approaches will do. Following guided steps by the letter is not enough to produce good paraphrasing; it is just a kick start. Writing without thinking about the process you are going through is something that only more proficient readers and writers can do, and this is not usually the case with most of our students. Students need guidance at the beginning until they can slowly develop their reading and writing skills to the point they can paraphrase ‘naturally’ and properly.

Here there are some web sources that may be helpful to both students in need of paraphrasing guidance and tutors in need of understanding the process a bit further to be able to be of any service to their learners.

Paraphrase – Purdue OWL

Paraphrasing – OpenLearn – Open University

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