Paraphrasing - The Academic Marmite

Submitted by Debora Quattrocci on Fri, 10/29/2021 - 12:29

Like me, you might have an ‘academic superhero’, a sort of ‘scholarly pinup.' This may be a very engaging lecturer or a particular author whose thoughts and ideas always struck a chord with you. Mine is Mikhail Bakhtin, a very influential 20th century Russian critical theorist.  


I started to read about Bakhtin’s ideas as an undergraduate and his message has stuck with me throughout the years, and still informs much of my reading, writing and thinking. You might encounter Bakhtin in many areas of critical thinking and various disciplines, but here I want to focus on his idea that language only really works in social interaction and in social context: when we speak or write we do it to share our words with others.  


In a nutshell, for Bakhtin our words are the result of an ongoing interaction, dialogue, with others. They are not entirely our own 'individual’ words because when we engage in speaking and writing we constantly borrow, re-use and re-appropriate ourselves of the words of others, from the books we read to the films we see, from our educators’ words to our peers’. So, yes, our words belong to us, to an extent, but they also belong to everybody else! For Bakhtin ‘in all areas of life and ideological activity, our speech is filled to overflowing with other people’s words, which are transmitted with highly varied degrees of accuracy and impartiality’ (1981, p.337). 


Now, in academia we are all in the business of ‘borrowing words’ (and of course attributing them!), re-wording ideas, re-phrasing key-concepts and … yes, you got it! – paraphrasing the ideas of other authors.  You can think of academia as a constantly simmering cauldron in which thoughts are mixed, boiled, re-heated and new condiments and flavours added to the mix all the time: through this process, entirely new ideas and words come to life! This got me thinking about our optional workshops on paraphrasing and whether we all truly get what paraphrasing is really about. 


Paraphrasing is not a ‘destination’ you need to get to and once there feel comfortable in. Nobody will give you high marks for excellent paraphrasing skills, although everybody will expect you to do it competently. Rather, think of paraphrasing as a process that will enable you to absorb and incorporate the words of others into your own repertoire, into your own academic voice, almost seamlessly and organically. Paraphrasing is not about dryly re-formulating a quote, instead it is about understanding the meaning of that quote and demonstrating that you do so, as accurately and objectively as possible.  


Let’s face it, everybody in life – not just in academia – borrows (and re-appropriates themselves of) the words of others: teenagers will adopt words (slang) that make them sound ‘cool’, doctors and lawyers will use words (jargon) that pertain to their profession and academics will use some fancy key-words such as paraphrasing or critical thinking  (just to mention the easy ones), but, as Bakhtin reminds us, words belong to all of us as we are in a constant exchange with one another. It is the way we use them, the layer(s) of meaning we add to them, our own ‘tone’, that makes them ‘ours’ and helps us convey the right meaning. 


Whereas quoting is ‘passive’ (merely copying / pasting and attributing), paraphrasing is all about active choices: choosing the relevant statement(s); selecting the most relevant key-words; rearranging sentences and adapting them to the overall argument; making sure we keep the original meaning and yet respond to the author by providing relevant critical comments; making sure not to plagiarise; correctly acknowledging the source. 


The ways in which as a student you can rearrange a sentence or a cluster of sentences to make room for your ‘own’ words may vary; you might need to change the structure of a sentence entirely; it might be difficult to replace key-words (and indeed sometimes unnecessary), but what is important is that the essence (the meaning!) of that statement is captured and that those words (even if not entirely your own) are arranged meaningfully and -above all- critically! Remember, you need to be an active reader to be good at paraphrasing, able to question and critique what you read. 


Bakhtin saw things ‘dialogically’ and if we apply his ideas to paraphrasing you will see that through paraphrasing you effectively enter in dialogue with one or more authors by concisely recapping and actively responding to their ideas; you take a stance, to show the reader your agreement or disagreement with an author. 


Your job as university students is to enter into as many active dialogues as possible with authors relevant to your discipline, capturing the meaning of those interactions and translating them into your writing. 


Love it or hate it, paraphrasing,  the academic Marmite, can help you engage intellectually with academic texts– just don’t think of it as a plagiarism-avoidance mechanism, rather as a way to engage in conversation with some of your ‘academic pinups’!  


If you want to know more: 


Bakhtin, M., (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University Press.  


Mori,M. (2018). Our speech is filled with others' words: Understanding university student and instructor opinions towards paraphrasing through a Bakhtinian lens, Ampersand. 5, 45-54, (last accessed 24/03/2021)  


Paraphrasing and Synthesis