Paraphrasing: An Introduction -->

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Paraphrasing: An Introduction

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When I talk about literature reviews with dissertation students, I often tell them that, when they write about other authors’ ideas—as they report on dozens of sources and present their analysis of the scholarship in their field—they’re actually telling a story. This sometimes prompts a few puzzled looks from the students, so I add that they’re obviously not telling a made-up story, nor are they using figurative language or creating dramatic tension. They’re telling a story, though, in that their readers expect the contents of a scholarly text to make logical and sequential sense (it needs to clearly proceed from beginning to middle to end, just like a story), and—just as importantly—they expect that information to be delivered in a single, authoritative voice. The skill through which they can create this singular voice, I tell them, is paraphrasing.

The title image for this post with letters superimposed over a butterfly sitting on a leaf.

You might be skeptical about this idea. Etymologically, paraphrasing means “to modify the telling,” which can seem counter-intuitive: after all, as a scholar, isn’t it your job to faithfully represent an author’s original words? Don’t you have a responsibility to not modify the telling of someone else’s ideas?

Those are understandable concerns, but they’re a bit misplaced, because when you paraphrase, you modify the telling but not the essential meaning of another author’s ideas. In other words, you tell your own story of that evidence. It’s not a fictional story; you must remain as objective and truthful as possible. But that evidence doesn’t exist in isolation: to be comprehensible, it needs to be given context and woven into an overall argument about your topic. Other aspects of academic writing are involved in your storytelling (namely, analysis and synthesis), but paraphrasing is the unsung hero of this process, quietly doing the bulk of the work. When you paraphrase well, you’re telling a good story about the literature in your field.

Paraphrasing is a huge topic, far more nuanced than we can fully address in just one blog post. The enormity, and importance, of this topic is part of the reason why we will dedicate the next weeks on this blog to exploring paraphrasing’s role in scholarly writing. That said, if you’d like to learn more about paraphrasing now, we have several additional resources available for you. You could:

As you work through those resources, please keep in mind that, for the sake of simplicity and clarity, we in the Writing Center often focus on individual sentences or passages when we talk about paraphrasing. This makes sense—fundamentally, each paraphrase has to represent a single idea, so it’s often easier to tackle them one by one—but I strongly encourage you to also consider how your paraphrases contribute to the narratives you construct in your papers. Ask yourself: how does this paraphrase fit into the overall body of evidence? Does it follow logically from the text that comes before it? Am I telling my reader a clear and engaging story?

And join us in this blog space over the next weeks as we look at paraphrasing in a variety of different ways. These posts will hopefully give you a clear set of tools with which to develop these skills and master the art of telling the story of your scholarly research. Enjoy!

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Matt Sharkey-Smith is a senior writing instructor in the Walden Writing Center. He also serves as contributing faculty in the Walden Academic Skills Center.  Matt joined the Writing Center in 2010 with a BA in English from Saint John's University in Minnesota. He earned an MFA in Writing from Hamline University in St. Paul in 2011 and has worked outside of Walden as a technical writer, fact-checker, copy editor, tutor, and writing instructor.

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