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Research and Documentation

Research Writing Tutorial:
A Self-Guided Tutorial

by Michael Fleming

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What are valid techniques for paraphrasing?

Often your research will turn up a passage that contains an idea that is useful to the development of your paper but isn't especially suitable as a quotation. Maybe the passage contains extraneous material that makes it too long for quoting; maybe there's nothing especially eloquent or "quotable" in the author's language; maybe you have a better way to express the idea. In any case, paraphrasing is a necessary and very useful skill for academic writers. Strictly speaking, a paraphrase is any restatement; in academic writing, however, the wording and syntax of a paraphrase must be quite distinct from the original quotation in order to avoid plagiarism. (And whether you quote an author directly or reword the author's idea in a paraphrase, you must include a citation.)

Suppose that, in the course of researching William Faulkner's short stories, you find this passage in Lawrence R. Rodgers's essay, "'We all said, "She will kill herself": The Narrator/Detective in William Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily'" (included in The Norton Introduction to Literature, Ninth Edition):

While it might initially seem surprising that 20th-century America's premier novelist would draw so freely from the conventions of formula fiction, Faulkner was, to his frustration, well-versed with the necessities of writing with mass publication in mind. (601)

An acceptable paraphrase might be something like this:

Faulkner understood exactly what would be expected of him if he wanted to produce fiction with a broad popular appeal (Rodgers 601).

Notice that the paraphrase contains Rodgers's idea but that the phrasing and wording is completely different. (The citation, of course, is required whenever you draw an idea from another writer.)

Now here is an unacceptable paraphrase:
While at first it might seem surprising that a major American novelist would make free use of the conventions of genre fiction, Faulkner was, despite himself, quite familiar with the requirements of writing for a mass readership.

This paraphrase would open the writer to a charge of plagiarism: most of the words have been changed, but the sentence structure is the same (and there's no citation). Here is another unacceptable paraphrase:

We wouldn't expect 20th-century America's premier novelist to follow the conventions of formula fiction, but nevertheless Faulkner knew how to write with mass publication in mind (Rodgers 601).

Yes, this paraphrase does include a citation—but it's still plagiarism, because it quotes several of Rodgers's phrases ("20th-century America's premier novelist," "the conventions of formula fiction," "with mass publication in mind") but fails to enclose these phrases in quotation marks.

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