Whether you are in graduate school or the workforce, you can’t really avoid it. Sloppy or rushed paraphrasing can lead to accidental copyright infringement or accusations of plagiarism, but proper paraphrasing takes most writers a long time. This can feel impossible when you are working under a deadline. Paraphrasing is not just substituting synonyms and rearranging clauses, although many English learners approach it that way because of lack of experience. So what should you do?
Read the original text from start to finish. Ask yourself if there is anything you don’t understand. If so, go back, read again, and clarify your understanding. Think about what the original text is conveying.
Break it down. Pull out the most important points and list them in bullet point form in the briefest possible phrasing. If you can write your bullet points in your own words here and not those of the other author, even better, but if not, don’t worry at this stage.
Build it back up. Look at your bullet points but NOT at the original text. Then composes sentences from your bullet point main ideas and details and put them back into paragraph form. Do not censor yourself at this stage, even for spelling. You will clean up any errors in the final step. Focus on including what needs to be included and the best order for it. This is your paraphrase draft.
Read your draft to yourself, both in your head and again out loud. Does it capture everything that needs to be conveyed? If so, then it is time to look at the original text again. Compare your draft to the text and highlight any areas where your phrasing is too close to the original. Think of ways to re-phrase these segments – find synonyms? Invert the clauses? Compose a totally different sentence structure? Use the thesaurus at this stage – it is a writer’s best friend and there is no shame in looking up suggested synonyms (Bonus: this practice will help build your vocabulary.)
Read your draft one more time. Fix any punctuation, grammar, or spelling errors. Then ask yourself: Does my paraphrase convey the main ideas and details, and does it do this in my own words? If yes, you’re done! If not, give attention to the necessary parts and re-work them again.
In short, when you paraphrase, you must think deeply about the content that is being conveyed and then figure out how to synthesize it in your own words. This doesn’t mean you can’t use ANY of the original words – sometimes there is no other word or phrase for what you need to say – but you must reserve that for rare situations, cite the source if needed, and do your best to find new ways of describing. Language combinations are infinite and there is always a way.