How to Paraphrase a Difficult Text
Paraphrasing is essential when using sources in writing, but it’s challenging when a source uses difficult language. You can still use the source. However, you need to break down the steps for writing an effective paraphrase. The four steps are to look up difficult words, rewrite the passage while substituting synonyms for most of the words, rewrite the rewritten passage by changing its sentence structure, and read the paraphrase to ensure it makes sense.
Look Up Words
Ensure you understand the passage by looking up definitions of unfamiliar words, Brenda Spatt advises in Writing from Sources (159). Use the context to decide which definition fits each word. When reading the following text, I looked up aggrandizement, constitutive, and prerogative:
“For most of human history, most people could not read at all. Literacy was not only a demarcator between the powerful and the powerless; it was power itself. Pleasure was not an issue. The ability to maintain and understand commercial records, the ability to communicate across distance and in code, the ability to keep the word of God to yourself and transmit it only at your own will and in your own time—these are formidable means of control over others and aggrandizement of self. Every literate society began with literacy as a constitutive prerogative of the (male) ruling class” (Ursula K. Le Guin, qtd. in Spatt 161).
Pretend you’re a translator, and rewrite the text by substituting synonyms for as many of the words as you can (Spatt, 159). Choose words based on the context and the vocabulary you usually use. Here’s how I rewrote Le Guin’s text:
For the majority of humanity’s existence, most had no reading ability. Literacy was not merely a divider between those with power and those without; it was in fact power. Delight was not a factor. The skill to keep and comprehend commercial records, the skill to transmit messages over distances and in code, the skill to keep the Bible secret and communicate it merely when you want to—these are overwhelming means of dominion over others and enhancement of one’s own status. Each literate nation started with literacy as a defining privilege of the male governing class.
Don’t stop with the previous step because your resulting passage is likely to be similar enough to constitute plagiarism. Change the sentence structure of the new text to make the paraphrase truly in your words (Spatt, 159). You may be able to delete some phrases or sentences if they're less relevant to the point you're making. Here’s my final paraphrase:
Most had no reading ability for the majority of humanity’s existence. Literacy was in fact power, not merely a divider between those with power and those without. The powerful skill to transmit encoded messages over distance, keep and comprehend commercial records, and keep the Bible secret until you want to communicate it enhances your status while you rule others. Literacy began as the male governing class’s defining privilege in all literate nations.
Read the Paraphrase
Read what you’ve written out loud to ensure it makes sense and reflects the meaning of the original text (Spatt, 159).
Good paraphrases change both wording and structure. To paraphrase difficult writing, break the process down into these four steps.
Work Cited: Spatt, Brenda. Writing from Sources. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Print.
Photo: Samantha Marx, Flickr Creative Commons
About Darla Word
I'm a writing tutor and editor from Michigan. My favorite subject to write about is writing because making better writers is my calling. I also enjoy reading, singing, swimming, and cardmaking.