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Quote or paraphrase? Three tips from a pro

It’s a pity when surface problems scuttle otherwise strong scholarship. As an academic editor, I’ve noticed that poorly handled quotations are particularly damning. Inelegant use of prior scholarship can give the impression that a writer is unsophisticated, or even amateur.

Naturally, research does involve mining books and articles to inform our own arguments, which are ideally novel and substantial but still reference that prior work. Often there may be temptation to repurpose existing literature that seems to say exactly what needs to be said in order to get to ideas that are original. It can certainly be difficult to think around the particular ways in which influential scholars have formulated cornerstone concepts.

Because quoting prior scholarship is so integral to most academic disciplines, it pervades the research process. Material recorded verbatim in the information-gathering stage can find its way into manuscripts. Drafting can sometimes even start with a skeleton of quotes germane to a topic; new writing is then added as connective tissue pulling it all together. Here’s what that method looks like:

“quotation” + enough original material to get to the next point + “another quotation”

And then there’s the quote-sandwich technique we all learned in college:

short introduction + “quotation” + brief explanation
(often quickly followed by another quote sandwich)

I’ve noticed that these “quote quilt” approaches are favored by graduate students and scholars writing their first manuscripts, which tend to grow out of their dissertations.

But despite its associations with student work, I wouldn’t say that stitching quotations together is a strictly verboten scholarly drafting method. Using quotations to anchor an argument can be an expeditious way of putting research together.

The risk of leaving that structure intact through subsequent revisions, however, can have the effect of ceding command of the material to the sources. Quotation after quotation can start to eat away at what editors call the authorial voice. Readers’ trust in the author as an expert will be squandered.

Alternatively, when writers trust themselves, they can express the knowledge their fields accrete without heavy reliance on quotations. In doing so, they optimize both the integrity of the writing and the reader’s experience. In many respects, these two concerns are one and the same.

Tip 1: Justify every quotation.

When editing, I tend to flag underwhelming quotations and instruct my clients to paraphrase them. Writers have to be ready to justify every quotation that remains in their manuscripts.

That’s the litmus test. If an author can’t speak to why the material in question has to be replicated verbatim, my professional opinion is that it should be paraphrased instead. Or, if paraphrasing feels like too much energy for too little return, the quotation should likely be removed entirely.

Tip 2: Determine the material’s purpose.

How do you know whether a quotation is justifiable? As you revise your drafts, and scrutinize your use of sources, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the passage a statement of fact?
  • Is the excerpt from a secondary source but not exceedingly well phrased?
  • Do I just not feel like saying something myself?
  • If I’m honest, am I hoping that the source’s aura of credibility will rub off on my work?

Quote only when you answered no to all the questions above and when one of the following conditions is satisfied:

  • The selection is from a primary source and is parsed in a critical (as in text-critical) way.
  • The snippet is from a secondary source and is so erudite, so jaw-droppingly well said, that you would be remiss to convey the idea in any other way.

It should go without saying that ninety-nine percent of quotations need to be unpacked. The remaining one percent are those inserted for punchy rhetorical effect, where explanation would take away from their impact. Don’t let quotations transition for you, and don’t let them speak for you. Corral them; marshal them; deploy them in service of your argument.

I’m not saying that you should masticate other authors’ arguments and pass them off as your own. All I mean is that you should be putting other thinkers into conversation with one another in a way that’s entirely yours.

Tip 3: Know that effective use of source material is a mark of integrity and quality.

The advantages of using this method to justify the quotations that remain in your writing are several:

  • You, the author, remain in control of the argument.
  • In forcing yourself to justify salient passages from other literature, you improve your own grasp of the material.
  • The writing is tighter, with fewer tangents and better focus.
  • The work is more readable and has improved flow.
  •  The manuscript is likely shorter.
  • Your readers will assume you are more senior in your field, since an overreliance on quoted material is a tic commonly (and often intuitively) associated with student writing.

Being rigorously discerning in your use of quotations benefits your readers, enhances your field, and boosts your professional standing. Any habit that can do all that and also make the work more fulfilling for the writer is worthwhile.

Katie Van HeestThrough her practice, Tweed Editing, Katie Van Heest refines scholarship so that research makes its mark within the academy and beyond. Her services are retained by professors, independent researchers, and advanced graduate students, and she edits for university presses, research centers, and scholarly societies. Article originally published at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.