By Christiane Marshall

I wrote this in 2010, but dug it up to help a student I’m tutoring at a local college. Let me know if this is helpful to you!


What I try to do here is to give you a method to help you synthesize the material you’re working with so that you end up truly writing in your own words while giving credit to the authors you’ve read.   

It’s important to note right off the bat that summarizing and paraphrasing skills are used in “pre-writing” your paper; this is not how to write it. “Saying it in your own words” is a serious challenge for many students. Here are some strategies that might help you. 

Sometimes students are surprised when they are accused of plagiarism. This might be because they are unaware that what is known as “mosaic plagiarism” is not true paraphrasing. Merriam-Webster defines paraphrasing as: “a restatement of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form.”

The important phrase here is “in another form.” When a student takes a paragraph out of a document, finds synonyms in a thesaurus and changes some words, this is known as “mosaic plagiarism.”

In this case, even if a majority of words have been changed, the “form” remains the same. The sentence and paragraph structures remain intact. Nouns are replaced with similar nouns. Verbs are replaced with similar verbs, Adjectives are replaced with similar adjectives, and so on.

Summarizing and paraphrasing are steps in gathering information for a paper. In order to be able to summarize and paraphrase properly, a student must first fully understand what he or she is reading. Here are some strategies that might help.

Reading Comprehension Strategies

The first step is to fully understand the texts and vocabulary. Finding synonyms in the manner described above (mosaic plagiarism) is a strategy that can help a student understand the text better; so for someone used to that practice, it can be used to bridge the gap to better college writing.

Rather than giving up the practice, it should be recognized as a study skill rather than as a writing skill. These paragraphs should never be used in the college paper, but should only be used to help deepen the understanding of the readings. Writing the words “mosaic worksheet” across the top of the paper will help to avoid plagiarizing later by clearly identifying it.

Talk, then write: A second reading comprehension strategy is to “teach” a study buddy the concepts. Trying to explain to someone else forces a student to rephrase the material. Using hand motions when speaking adds a kinesthetic element to the thinking process and can sometimes be helpful.

 If a student is part of a study group, helping each other to think through concepts for writing papers can be an appropriate study activity if all agree. Students can encourage each other to fully “morph” the format of the text.

Another way to better understand readings is to draw pictures, diagrams, concept maps, or use graphic organizers. This can be part of teaching others the concepts being synthesized.

During the “teaching” session, the study partners can help by asking questions. Trying to answer questions further helps the student to deepen his or her comprehension of material.

One more helpful comprehension activity is to try and think of an example that might illustrate the concept or concepts.

Summarizing and Paraphrasing

Once the student is satisfied with his comprehension, he or she should write a paraphrase of the concepts which should be much easier. Then a summary can be composed. The summary can be simply a list.

Writing out thoughts and examples that came to mind in the process is a good way to later write an original paper. It’s best to identify these with a note such as “my thoughts,” or “my ideas,” or color code them with a highlighter or colored pencil. The paraphrases, summaries, ideas and thoughts are preliminary to writing the paper. It’s important to remember to give the authors credit for their ideas, even if not a direct quote.

When all of the research and note taking is almost finished, an idea for the angle of the paper will begin to emerge. At this point, an original paper can be written without paraphrasing.

If the research paper has three different references, the student will later need to combine them together. If careful work is done in the early steps to first understand, then paraphrase and summarize important concepts, the writing of the paper will go much more smoothly.

It’s important to write the bibliographic information on each annotation for later reference. If there is a direct quote that the student will use later, quotation marks should be placed around the quote and page number recorded. These notes are your annotation of one author’s work and your response to it.

If these steps are followed, the work of pulling together a paper will go more smoothly:

  • Be sure to fully understand the texts by using reading comprehension strategies.
  • Think of examples.
  • Summarize and paraphrase.
  • Keep notes organized, clearly identifying bibliographic information so authors can be given credit for their ideas. It will be much easier to remember to give credit to the ideas of each author if notes are organized.
  • Begin writing your paper when an idea for the paper begins to emerge. Use your paraphrases, direct quotes, examples, ideas and summaries to help you remember facts.
  • Use direct quotes sparingly and always give credit.

Please leave comments and questions below. If you need further help, your college likely has a student success center and free tutors. I tutor at WSCC and it is free to students who attend.