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Paraphrasing in academic writing: what, when, and how

What is paraphrasing?

Paraphrasing means rephrasing or rewriting sentences in your own words. It is important in academic writing, where you need to show your understanding of other sources without copying them.

To paraphrase sentences thoroughly, you must do more than just replace a few words: you must also make changes in word order and sentence structure.

When to paraphrase

In academic writing, you’ll paraphrase when you:

  • cite sources

For example, to write your Literature section, you draw information from the sources you cite, but discuss these sources in your own words.

  • reuse phrases you come across

Paraphrasing is useful when you come across phrases in the literature that you want to reuse - this can be easier than starting a sentence from scratch. For example, if you read in a paper: ‘The main limitation is related to …’, you might rephrase this as ‘A key limitation is due to …’.

  • add variation to your language

Using the same words over and over can make your writing repetitive. Paraphrasing helps add variation to your language use. For example, instead of the very frequent phrase ‘the results show that …’, you could write ‘the data indicate that …’ or ‘the numbers reveal that…’.

  • summarize parts of your own work

When writing a paper or thesis, you’ll often summarize parts of your own text. For instance, in your thesis Introduction, you briefly summarize papers that you discuss more in-depth in a later chapter. Or in your paper’s abstract, you summarize the results that you provide within the paper. In these cases, you paraphrase your own sentences to summarize; giving the same information, but more concisely and to-the-point.

How to paraphrase

How you paraphrase in your paper or thesis depends on your goal. If you simply want to add variation to your writing, you can change as much or as little as you want. But if you’re paraphrasing from a source, you’ll want to change the language enough to show you fully understand the original work, and to avoid plagiarizing. This means you’ll do more than change a few bits. And remember that no matter how much paraphrasing you do, you must always cite your source.

Here are a few techniques for paraphrasing:

  1. Change words

For example, instead of ‘The authors investigated the issue of …’ you could write ‘The authors explored the topic of …’. This is a quick and simple paraphrasing technique, but it’s also one that makes few changes to a sentence. If you are citing a source and you wish to rewrite it using your own words, consider also changing the word order.

  1. Change the word order

Most sentences allow for swapping a few phrases around. For example:

  • On the second day, the subjects were interviewed. > The subjects were interviewed on the second day.
  1. Change the voice (passive - active)

Both the active and passive voice are fine to use in academic writing. You can quite easily change between these to paraphrase. For example:

  • From active to passive voice: The farmers emptied the tanks. > The tanks were emptied by the farmers.
  • From passive to active voice: The values are shown in Table 2. > Table 2 shows the values.
  1. Delete words

Sentences can often be made more concise. You can remove words that are not necessary, or change lengthy phrases into shorter ones. For example:

  • Due to the fact that a decrease was reported, additional analyses were carried out.
  • Considering the decrease, additional analyses were conducted.
  1. Use Writefull

You can also use a tool to help you paraphrase. Unfortunately, most tools only replace individual words, and offer words that aren’t always suitable for academic writing. Try Writefull’s Paraphraser, which uses a language model that has been trained on academic texts to give you appropriate paraphrases. It’s available in Writefull for Word, Writefull for Overleaf, and from our website.