Effective Paraphrasing for the Smart Student

By Sally Baggett

Paraphrasing is an important part of any writing involving outside sources. It’s a way to repeat a source in your own words without having to echo it word for word. Yet how do you paraphrase effectively? There are a few things to consider when paraphrasing, including choosing when to paraphrase in the first place! Let’s take a closer look at paraphrasing to help us be smart in our writing choices.

Choosing When to Paraphrase in an Essay

There is a certain rhythm created when you write something, one that can be accomplished by a combination of sentences of varying lengths. So just as you might want to compose a paragraph with a mix of complex and simple sentences, you may also want to mix up how you refer to sources when writing an essay.

You can usually reference a source by quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing it. Consider carefully which type of reference to use. To help in making this decision, consider the following:

  • Decide what level of support the point you are making needs. Does it need the words of an expert? Use a quote. However, if the point you’re making would sound just as strong in your own words, consider paraphrasing the quote.
  • How long is the passage you are referencing? If you want to point the reader to a paragraph in a source, condensing it into a sentence or two of your own words (paraphrasing) is often more effective than a long block quote.
  • Consider how many quotes you have used overall. If every single reference to a source is a direct quote, try to replace some quotes that don’t need an expert’s words with a paraphrase.
  • Paraphrase references to numbers. Numeric or statistical references can often be done without quoting, such as mentioning a percentage, fraction, or amount in a sentence.

Selecting Which Sources to Paraphrase

As mentioned above, it’s essential to consider what level of support each point needs. Part of this decision can be made by looking at your sources before you ever write the first draft, such as when drafting an outline.

Sources that are eye-witness accounts or interviews with an expert, such as newspaper articles, are often best quoted. This way, the reader has direct evidence of the point you are making. If you go this route, you may also need to include an in-text MLA format or APA citation.


However, if the source is related to statistics, like percentages or numbers, it might be best to mention it in a sentence with your own words. Another source that would work well as a paraphrase might be sections of encyclopedia entries that you could condense into a smaller space.

Putting It in Your Own Words

When you put references to sources into your own words, it is important that you maintain the integrity of each source. For instance, if you’re summarizing a paragraph of an encyclopedia entry, read that paragraph closely. What is the main idea? What point does it make? What information from that paragraph do you need to translate to the reader? You don’t want to add any ideas that aren’t there in the source. Such close attention to detail can help you avoid lazy paraphrasing, which can in turn help you avoid accidental plagiarism.

For example, below is an excerpt from an article on Russian Duchess Anastasia from Encyclopedia Britannica, written by Alicja Zelazko:

“After Nicholas II abdicated the throne on March 15, 1917, he and his wife, Alexandra; son, Alexis; and four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, were taken captive and eventually moved to a house in the Ural Mountains. In the cellar, they and four of their servants were executed by a Bolshevik firing squad on July 17, 1918. However, no bodies were immediately found. Moreover, reports from Russia were so unclear that the dowager empress, who found refuge in Crimea, doubted the news of her family’s death.”

A paraphrase for this selection using an MLA parenthetical citation might look like this:

The family of Nicholas II, tsar of Russia, was forced into to the Ural Mountains in 1917 and executed by Bolsheviks a little more than a year later. Many doubted that it actually happened, however, due to lack of evidence and confusing reports (Zelazko).


It is important to maintain both the tone of your own writing and the tone of the source itself throughout each paraphrase. If you are writing a formal academic essay, each paraphrase needs to reflect your tone with usage of strong vocabulary and sentence structure. If you are writing with a less formal tone, the same principle applies. And although you’re putting the source in your own words, you want to convey the source’s tone as closely as you can; this can be done by studyingand conveying to the readerits level of vocabulary and word choice.

Source Length

Remember to limit yourself to paraphrasing short passages from a source, such as a few sentences or a paragraph. Once you start paraphrasing more than that, such as several paragraphs or an entire article, you are actually doing more summary than paraphrasing.

Citing Your Sources

Part of effective paraphrasing is citing your sources correctly. Without cross-referencing—both an in-text citation and an entry on the references page—you risk losing credibility with your reader. A smart student knows they must give credit where credit is due! Use your knowledge of whatever style you’re using, such as APA, MLA, Harvard referencing, or Chicago Manual of Style, to guide how you cite your sources in-text and on the references page.

Tip: You should cite sources for a paraphrased sentence the same way you cite sources for a quote.

A Final Look

Paraphrasing doesn’t have to be restricted to assigned essays with the word “research” in them. You can use quotes, paraphrases, or summaries of sources anytime that you use an outside source in your writing, be it a research paper or a piece of creative writing. The important thing to remember is to place each paraphrase wisely, to maintain proper tone, and to correctly cite each source.