How to Paraphrase a Poem: A 5 Step-by-Step Guide

There are times when you may need to paraphrase a poem. If you want to know how to paraphrase a poem, read on.

Paraphrasing involves rewriting the words of another author in your own words. Getting it right is a skill. While you want to be careful not to use words that are too similar to the source to avoid being accused of plagiarism, you also need to ensure that the original text’s meaning remains intact. In academic writing, paraphrasing is a useful tool that allows you to reference the work of others without having to quote their work directly.

Why you would paraphrase sections of an article, essay, or novel is clear. But why would one paraphrase a poem? Read on to see our step-by-step guide outlining how to paraphrase a poem correctly.

Why Would You Paraphrase a Poem?

If you’ve ever had to write an essay at college or university, you’ll be well-versed in the art of paraphrasing. Paraphrasing the words of another scholar or academic allows one to incorporate their research into your work skillfully. Apart from demonstrating that you’ve adequately understood your source material, paraphrasing also makes for writing that flows well. Your work reads more smoothly if you paraphrase than constantly insert direct quotes.

As you will undoubtedly know, paraphrasing other people’s words is OK as long as you reference their work. In the academic world, plagiarism is not allowed in any case. 

Here are a few reasons for paraphrasing a poem:

  • For your understanding: Many regard poetry as the most difficult literary form. This is because poems often contain figurative language, which is dense and challenging to unpack. By paraphrasing a poem in your own words, you can ensure that you clearly understand the figurative phrases and have grasped the meaning the poet is trying to convey.
  • To save space: you may need to reference a piece of poetry in an essay; paraphrasing allows you to do this without including the whole poem
  • When writing about a poem: As is the case with any other literary forms, such as novels or short stories, you need to refer to the content of a poem when you’re writing about it. Since you don’t always want to quote directly from a poem, you may choose to paraphrase lines from time to time.
  • When trying to explain a poem: Paraphrasing a poem effectively conveys its meaning. If you’ve grasped a poem and try to help somebody else understand it, paraphrasing the poem’s lines in easy-to-understand, everyday language is a useful method.

You might also want to learn about a refrain in poems.

How To Paraphrase a Poem

1. Carefully Read Through the Poem a Few Times

The first step you need to take when paraphrasing somebody else’s words are to read their work carefully. This is especially important when paraphrasing a poem since this literary form is notoriously difficult to interpret. Ensure you grasp the meaning and feel a deep understanding of the themes and meanings of the poem before you begin paraphrasing.

2. Analyze the Poem

Next, you need to go thoroughly analyze the poetry. This means that you should go through the poem line by line. Look up words in the dictionary that you don’t understand and carefully unpack similes, metaphors, symbolic sections, and other figurative phrases. Also, consider the poem’s structure since poetry often is just as important for meaning as the content. In addition, think about the period in which the poem was written and how this may have influenced how the poet has chosen to construct their work.

3. Recite the Poem In Your Own Words

Steps on how to paraphrase a poem: Recite the poem in your own words
Before writing down your words, it makes sense first to recite them

Once you’re quite certain that you understand all aspects of the poem, it’s time to start using your own words. Depending on how you plan to refer to the poem in your written work, you may choose to paraphrase line by line or in larger chunks, such as stanzas or sections. Before writing down your words, it makes sense first to recite them. Try to use common everyday language and keep things as simple as possible. The aim is not to create beautiful or ornate phrases but to reveal the essential meaning of a dense literary work in plain language.

4. Start Writing

After reciting your paraphrased version of the entire poem or sections of the poem, it’s time to put pen to paper. Since you’ve probably recited different versions of your own words by this point, you should have a clear idea of how you’d like to paraphrase various lines or sections of the poem.

If you get stuck, remember that one of the first steps you want to take is to write down the literal meaning of the poet’s words. For instance, Shakespeare’s line “If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head,” can be paraphrased as “Her hair is coarse and dry instead of silky and soft.”

Also, while poets often condense their content to fit within the rhythm and meter of the poem, you are not limited by such constraints. It’s not that tricky to paraphrase poetic lines in your own words when you can fill in the spaces and missing words that a poet has consciously omitted. Since you’re rewriting a poem in prose form, remember that your paraphrased version should consist of full sentences.

5. Proofread Your Work

Once you’ve completed your paraphrased version of the poem, you should proofread your work. First, read through your paraphrased version line by line or section by section, and double-check that you’ve captured the original work’s meaning. This is very important. Whether you’re using your paraphrased words in an essay or to explain the poem to students, it’s essential that you accurately portray the meaning the poet worked so hard to bring across.

Here are a few other things to look out for:

  • Avoid overuse of synonyms: While it’s OK to replace the occasional word with its synonym, you should guard against using synonyms as your sole method of paraphrasing. When paraphrasing someone else’s words, you need to demonstrate that you understand the work by completely rewriting lines or sections in your own words. Rewriting original lines and just replacing some words with their synonyms constitutes plagiarism.
  • Changing word order is not paraphrasing: Although this is a trick often employed by lazy students, simply shuffling the word order of a line does not equate to paraphrasing. Again, you need to rewrite the other author’s words in your own words. Otherwise, you are plagiarizing. In addition, simply rearranging the words of another author serves no purpose.
  • Use the same point-of-view: Remember to retain the point-of-view of the original work when you’re paraphrasing. For instance, if a poem utilizes the first-person point-of-view, your paraphrased version should also be in the first person. For instance, the line “While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping” can be paraphrased as “While I was falling asleep I suddenly heard a tapping sound.”
  • Avoid adding your ideas: You should stay true to the original work when paraphrasing. While you should use your own words, avoid changing the original content or adding any of your ideas or opinions.
  • Make sure to reference the original source: You must reference the origins of the poetry and credit the author, even when paraphrasing.

For more, check out our roundup of the best grammar checkers.

  • Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.