How to Paraphrase - A Detailed, Step by Step Guide

Updated Oct 12, 2021

How to Paraphrase

By Matthew

In this post we’re going to cover all things paraphrasing, with many examples of paraphrases, so that when you’re done, you won’t even need our fancy paraphrasing tool ;)

First, to define paraphrase: A paraphrase is a rewriting, rewording, or otherwise rephrasing of a piece of text. When we paraphrase, we change the structure while retaining the original meaning of the words. Typically the unit of a paraphrase is the sentence, but it can also be at the phrase level or even at the paragraph or document level. If we paraphrase at the word level, we just call that using a synonym.

But before we dig in, why paraphrase to begin with? There are a few good reasons:

  1. Find the right words to express your thoughts - Paraphrasing enables you to iterate on your initial expressions, so that you see if what you are saying is what you really mean to say. Even though most people say the first thing that enters their mind, most thoughts can benefit from iteration and revision.

  2. Ensure that you understand what others are saying - Whether you are quoting the work of others or repeating the words of others as you understand them, paraphrasing to your own words enables you to make sure you are understanding correctly.

  3. Simplify ideas - Einstein said that, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Rewriting ideas in many different forms enables you to remove the rubbish, keeping only the most essential elements, if that’s what you want.

There are many ways to paraphrase, but here are some of those that easiest to describe and demonstrate a clear method for:

A. Paraphrasing for Clarity

B. Paraphrasing for Fluency

C. Paraphrasing for Formality

D. Paraphrasing for Cohesion

E. Paraphrasing for Parallelism

F. Paraphrasing for Conciseness

G. Paraphrasing for Originality

H. Paraphrasing for Quotability

I. Paraphrasing for Empathy

Paraphrasing for Clarity

Many ideas in this post come from the great Joseph Williams, whose book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace is a great primer for anyone interested in refining their writing.[^1]

Clarity, for Williams, requires that subjects be aligned with characters and verbs aligned with actions.

Paraphrase Example #1

Original: There were thoughts on the part of the doctors concerning the administration of morphine to the patient in question.

Paraphrased: The doctors thought about whether to administer morphine to the patient.

Most people would say the second sentence is clearer than the first, but there’s a lot to unpack here. But we can break it down by bolding the subjects and italicizing the verbs.

Original: There were thoughts on the part of the doctors concerning the administration of morphine to the patient in question.

Paraphrased: The doctors thought about whether to administer morphine to the patient.

Notice that in the first sentence the verb is a form of ‘to be,’ which is one of the weaker verbs you can use, since it tends to imply a state rather than an action. Also in the first sentence, ‘thoughts’ is a nominalized verb, forming an abstraction that conceals who did the ‘thinking.’ The theory goes that people process information better if it forms a narrative, and aligning subjects with characters and verbs with actions will get you there.

Try the following examples on your own before looking at the answer key at the end of the article.

Clarity Exercise:

  1. It was the belief of the firefighters that there would be more water coming.

  2. The writing of dictionaries is something done by lexicographers.

  3. Considerations must be given to context when using synonyms.

Paraphrasing for Fluency

Paraphrasing for fluency is about rewriting your sentences so that they sound more native, that is, so that they sound more likely to have been spoken by native speakers of the language. It's more nuanced than a mere grammar check. The key here is to eliminate jarring or awkward expressions that may confuse your reader. Given the ambiguity often present in disfluent expressions, there may be more than one acceptable paraphrase that serves as an interpretation of the original sentence.

Paraphrase Example #2

Original: My dream is to work close shop staff.

Paraphrase 1: My dream is to work close to the shop staff.

Paraphrase 2: My dream is to work at a clothing shop.

Notice that the two paraphrases mean very different things, but as the original sentence is not very clear on meaning, we have to make an interpretive leap if all we have is the above sentence, out of context and without the speaker or writer nearby to clarify. Note also that both paraphrases are acceptable, understandable, and likely to have been spoken by someone familiar with the language.

Try the following examples on your own before looking at the answer key at the end of the article.

Fluency Exercise:

  1. I like play basketball and squash.

  2. She like sweet potato is delicious.

  3. If you want to be pilot you have to make an achieve school success.

Paraphrasing for Formality

Whether to write in a formal tone depends on our audience. It’s very much like deciding whether to wear jeans or slacks, a t-shirt or a shirt and tie. If you are writing in a very hierarchical context or organization, or in a culture where formality plays a major role, such as Japan, it is best to understand and utilize formality in your writing.

In a sense, it is easier to identify what is informal than what is formal. Informal language often includes contractions (e.g. “they’re” instead of “they are,” “I’m” instead of “I am”), casual salutations (“hey” instead of “hello”), and ellipsis (“sup?” instead of what’s going on?). Only you can be the judge of how formal you need to be in your particular context, since although it is often worse to be too informal in a formal context, it can likewise be construed as pompous if you are overly formal among friends or family.

Paraphrase Example #3

Original: Hey buddy, whatcha doin’ right now?

Paraphrase: Hello, sir, what are you doing?

In this example, the formal and informal elements are bolded, and the change in tone is fairly obvious.

Formality Exercise (determine whether it is informal/formal and then change to the opposite)

  1. Well it is a very fine morning, is it not?

  2. Heya, Ima play some guitar with my gals.

  3. Dearest brother, I am writing to express in utmost sincerity the most elevated wishes to you and your family.

Paraphrasing for Cohesion

Cohesive writing is the art of taking distant topics and bringing them together in a smooth and compelling way. In a word, it is about achieving flow in your writing. Rewriting paragraphs so that they are cohesive is time consuming and challenging, because it requires not only mechanical rewording, but also an understanding of what information your reader will find familiar and specific and what they will find distant and opaque. Effectively rephrasing for cohesion means arranging old information so that it comes at the beginning of sentences and new information so that it comes at the end, all the while ensuring that the passage doesn’t seem too contrived.

Paraphrase Example #4

Original: We rented a rowboat towards the end of the trip, after having spent thirteen days in the Himalayas, with Martha and Jan already very tired from the journey. The rowboat was large and contained three compartments for clothing, food, and other necessities. Martha and Jan had become very tired after an incident that was emotionally very taxing for them.

Paraphrase: Towards the end of the trip, after having spent thirteen days in the Himalayas. Martha and Jan were already very tired from the journey. They had become very tired after an incident that was emotionally very taxing for them. Nevertheless, we decided to rent a rowboat, which was large and contained three compartments for clothing, food, and other necessities.

How do we know that the paraphrase is more cohesive than the original? We simply follow the sequence of topics.

In the original passage, we find the following:

Original: rowboat -> trip -> Himalayas -> Martha & Jan -> tired -> rowboat -> compartments -> Martha & Jan -> tired -> taxing

Paraphrase: trip -> Himalayas -> Martha & Jan -> tired -> tired -> taxing -> rowboat -> compartments

When you map the topics in this way, the cohesion becomes readily apparent. In many books, authors advise that writers use proper transitions, but cohesion is about more than proper transitions. It is about arranging your topics in such a way that old information transitions smoothly into new information, so that you don’t force your reader to zigzag around your text. Although rephrasing a paragraph can be tricky and intensive, practice often and you'll develop and eye for it.

Cohesion Exercises (borrowed from Joseph Williams):

  1. To obligate a corporation upon a contract to another party, it must be proven that the contract was its act, whether by corporate action, that of an authorized agent, or by adoption or ratification and such ratification will be implied by the acquiescence or the acceptance of the benefits of such contract, it being essential to implied ratification that the acceptance be with knowledge of all pertinent facts.

  2. Asian competitors who have sought to compete directly with Acme's X-line product groups in each of six market segments in the Western Pacific region will constitute the main objective of the first phase of this study. The labor costs of Acme's competitors and their ability to introduce new products quickly define the issue we will examine in detail in each segment. A plan that will show Acme how to restructure its diverse and widespread facilities so that it can better exploit unexpected opportunities, particularly in the market on the Pacific Rim, should result.

  3. During the first years of our nation, a series of brilliant and virtuous presidents committed to a democratic republic yet confident in their own superior worth conducted its administration.

Paraphrasing for Parallelism

Parallelism is often considered in grammar textbooks, and it does seem to bridge the gap between merely correct grammar and overall pleasant style.

Paraphrase Example #5

Original: It is a good idea to write fluently, with clarity, and be concise.

Paraphrase: It is a good idea to write fluently, clearly, and concisely.

You could say that elegance in writing is a big thing, that it consists of one’s ability to take in the world, to understand how it is and why it is, and to interpret it with a sense of the richness that is inherent in it, but you could also say that writing with parallel constructions adds a little bit of elegance to your writing.

Parallelism Exercises:

  1. There were three books, a toy monkey sat on the desk, and what else is in the room?

  2. Friendly are those who offer of themselves, good people listen carefully, and I think most people are kind that will walk you home.

  3. I ate lunch and was at the store until five cleaning up.

Paraphrasing for Conciseness

“Brevity is the soul of wit,” says Polonius, who ironically rambles a lot in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But he has a point. If we can distil our thoughts into something sharp and to the point, we may aspire to touch the soul of wit. For many conciseness is about making things shorter, and while that’s a result of making something concise, conciseness itself is about removing unnecessary and redundant material from a sentence.

Paraphrase Example #6

Original: The roses were red in color and soft in texture.

Paraphrase: The roses were red and soft.

In the above paraphrase, we removed what was redundant; since something can only be red with respect to color and soft with respect to texture, there is no need to mention general categories of these properties.

Conciseness Exercises:

  1. In the event that there is a breach of contact, we would do well to observe the fact that we are in the wrong.

  2. The synonym you chose to use in your essay was not uninviting of criticism.

  3. Each and every one of us would like to give a thank you for the work you have completed.

Paraphrasing for Originality

The concept of ‘originality’ has become ubiquitous since the advent of the plagiarism checker. A plagiarism checker will typically match sequences of words to determine whether two texts match. A definition of plagiarism will usually include something like, ‘trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own,” so the intention of the author really is key, even though a plagiarism check will do something far more superficial than assess intention. As a consequence people will try to eliminate plagiarism by changing words around, even if the work is and always was their own.

For the purposes of paraphrasing, originality goes beyond sequences of words; to write something original, you must either introduce a new thought, a new emphasis within the same thought, or a qualification of the original thought. Otherwise you need to quote the original material.

Paraphrase Example #7

Original: We learn by example and by direct experience because there are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction.[^2]

Paraphrase: There are limits to formal education; we must also learn through experience and by working through the examples of others.

Even though the words are very different, the main substantive change we made was substituting verbal instruction for formal education. Verbal instruction is broad and can refer to exchanges in a classroom, apprenticeship, at work, or in any other context. Formal education narrows the scope.

Paraphrasing for Empathy

Although there is an overlap, paraphrasing for empathy is not quite the same as merely being polite; instead, it sets a stance that you are not threatening, that you might be wrong, and that you are respectfully listening and open to possibilities. This is easier to achieve with questions than with assertions, but to write with empathy, we have to make assertions that ask.

Paraphrase Example #9

Original: As I’ve told you many times before, we need a home security system!

Paraphrase: I sure would like to rest with ease and not worry about every sound I hear. I may be wrong, but a security system sounds like a good idea. What do you think?

Empathy Exercises:

  1. I get it, you’re saying that we have to cut expenses to save the firm.

  2. It’s not enough to believe in yourself. You have to actually get up and do things.

  3. If you haven’t bought these cryptocurrencies.

In this guide we’ve covered nine different ways of paraphrasing, and believe you me, there are many more. You must find a style and a way of revising that brings out the richness of your thought and makes it resonate for others, one thought at a time, for every thought. If you can articulate an expression compellingly and sincerely, you will have contributed a gem to the world’s information.

Answer Key

Clarity Paraphrases:

  1. The firefighters believed more water would come.

  2. Lexicographers write dictionaries.

  3. When you use synonyms, you must consider context.

Fluency Paraphrases:

  1. I like to play basketball and squash.

  2. She likes sweet potato because it is delicious.

  3. If you want to be a pilot, you have to succeed in school.

Formality Paraphrases:

  1. Good morning!

  2. Hi, I’m going to play the guitar with my girlfriends.

  3. Bro, all my best to you and your fams.

Cohesion Paraphrases:

  1. To prove that a corporation is obligated to another party, the other party must prove one of two conditions:

    a. the corporation or its authorized agent explicitly acted to enter the contract, or

    b. the corporation adopted or implicitly ratified the contract when, knowing all pertinent facts, it acquiesced in or accepted its benefits.

  2. The first phase of this study will mainly examine six market segments in the Western Pacific region to determine how Asian competitors have sought to compete directly with Acme's X-line product groups. In each segment, the study will examine in detail their labor costs and their ability to introduce new products quickly. The result will be a plan that will show Acme how to restructure its diverse and widespread facilities so that it can better exploit unexpected opportunities, particularly in the market on the Pacific Rim.

  3. During the first years of our nation, its administration was conducted by a series of brilliant and virtuous presidents committed to a democratic republic yet confident in their own superior worth.

Parallelism Paraphrases:

  1. What else is in the room besides the three books and the monkey sitting on the desk?

  2. Friendly are those who offer of themselves, good those who listen carefully, and kind those that will walk you home.

  3. I ate lunch and until five I cleaned the store.

Conciseness Paraphrases:

  1. We would be wrong to breach the contract.

  2. The synonym you used in your essay invited criticism.

  3. We would like to thank you for your work.

Quotability Paraphrases:

  1. Summer is the best because it is a time of adventure, a time of growth, a time to get out of the house and go to a new place.

  2. Buy cheap and sell dear.

  3. When a couple elopes, they are no longer one person but two.

Empathy Paraphrases:

  1. If I’m understanding correctly, I believe you are suggesting that we trim expenses to improve the financial health of the firm, do I have that right?

  2. Believe in yourself, absolutely, and then do things in a way that honors and validates those beliefs.

  3. If they are consistent with your investment thesis, you may want to see if there opportunities in cryptocurrencies.


[^1] Williams, J. M., & Bizup, J. (2013). Style: Lessons in clarity and grace. Boston: Pearson.

[^2] Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Co, 2005.

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