Why you should paraphrase more

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Paraphrasing isn’t a job just for academics. It’s something that all writers need to learn how to do…

When I was in high school and university, I hated writing. I adored editing, mind you, but I found the pain of extracting that first draft torturous.

The most painful part? Paraphrasing.

Even when I started working in newspapers, I found paraphrasing hard. But here was the deal about journalism: you could often get away with great big swathes of quotes. As long as you used good ones (effective, interesting, idiosyncratic) editors never complained. In fact, they usually praised me for it.

Now, as someone who trains other writers, I often run across people who avoid paraphrasing the same way I used to. Here are five reasons why you should rethink that strategy:

1)  People in the business world seldom speak in articulate, interesting sentences. Some can toss off clever and apt comments like, “Nero fiddled, but [Calvin] Coolidge only snored.” (That’s a quote from H.L. Mencken — a journalist.) But for every one of those, there are a dozen who will say, “Coolidge ran a laissez-faire government.” B-O-R-I-N-G. So, even while you’ll always want to cite sources, do them — and your readers — a favour by paraphrasing. This is particularly important if they speak in a dull or predictable manner.

2) Many people you interview will use jargon. Few things alienate readers faster than jargon. Imagine, for example, stumbling across the following sentence: Perspicuity in prose is enhanced through the felicitous choice of lexical units. Do you know what to make of that? How about if I rewrite it as: The right choice of words improves clarity? Now you surely get it. Let’s say your interview subject is an engineer and you can’t figure out what s/he is telling you. Keep asking questions until you understand the subject completely. Beg the person to use Plain English. Ask them to explain it to you as if you were a 10-year-old. Then, be prepared to paraphrase in a way that your readers will understand, too.

3) Paraphrasing allows you to summarize. Your interview with a subject may run to 30 minutes. Assuming this person speaks at a rate of 150 words per minute, you may collect as many as 4,500 words. You can’t use all of them! By summarizing — and paraphrasing — you’ll be able to share the most important and valuable information your readers need to know.

4) Paraphrasing allows you to deal with obligatory subjects. Have you ever been forced to interview someone via email? It’s horrible! Most people, no matter how clever, fail to recognize the profound difference between the spoken word and the written one. If you’re ever forced to interview by email, paraphrase as much as possible, and extract the one comment that sounds like speech — reading it aloud to double-check its rhythm. (And, if necessary, rewrite the quote to sound better. Then you can email it back to the person for approval. I know, it’s not ideal. But it’s necessary with email interviews.)

5) Paraphrasing allows you to highlight the best of the best. Do you know why jewelers like to display their goods on black velvet? It’s because the darkness of the fabric makes the jewels glitter brightly by comparison. Similarly, if you paraphrase the bulk of what your subjects tell you and quote only the most captivating phrases, you’ll be giving them a background of black velvet against which they can shine like diamonds. 

I became more finely attuned to the art of paraphrasing several years ago after reading a New York Times profile of Christopher Kimball. Check out the link even if only to see the sternly funny photo of Kimball.) I had been impressed by the piece and decided to copy it. As I did so (it took me several weeks, working only five minutes per day), I was shocked to discover how few quotes it contained. It didn’t need them! 

Don’t over-quote in your own writing. Instead of displaying your skill as a masterful interviewer, it’s more likely to reveal your immaturity as a writer.

Next week: How to paraphrase.

What’s your experience with paraphrasing? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by May 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the delightful non-fiction book Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.

Scroll to Top