None of us writes in a vacuum. Everything we hear, see, and read influences what we write. And sometimes, it’s helpful to reference other people’s ideas and words in our own work.
However, it has to be done right. That means giving proper attribution and signaling when you’ve departed from the exact wording but kept the core idea.
We’ll deal more extensively with proper attribution (giving credit to the originator of an idea and pointing readers to the original document) another day. At the moment, we’ll take a look at three ways writers incorporate another person’s words and ideas into their own work: quotes, excerpts, and paraphrases.
I know I said we’d deal with attribution another day. What I meant was that we’d deal with the how of it.
But I do want to stress that giving proper credit for another’s words and ideas is essential, whether you used their exact words or not. Failure to do so is commonly referred to as plagiarism and is a big no-no in publishing.
Quotes and Excerpts
Both quotes and excerpts deal with pulling the exact wording from another’s work to use in your own. They only differ in size and formatting.
Quotes are usually only a few sentences long and sit within the flow of the main text. They’re surrounded by quotation marks “ ” to indicate that they’re someone else’s words, and some sort of footnote indicator or in-text citation follows.
Excerpts are longer passages, usually consisting of multiple paragraphs or even pages. With that size of a passage, quotation marks aren’t an effective visual indicator and can get lost, so publishers will often use different formatting to differentiate them.
For example, there might be a larger space or even a line or other design element at the beginning and end of the excerpt. You might also choose to widen the margins around the passage so that it’s indented a little farther than the rest of the text.
*Note—before including excerpts, you probably want to obtain permission from the author. A sentence or two usually falls within fair-use guidelines, but you’ll need permission to use larger passages.
Making Changes in Quotes and Excerpts
As I said above, when you’re using quotes and excerpts, it’s important to use the original author’s exact words. You can make a few changes to make the quoted material flow with your text, but those changes have to be minor, as in a word or a few letters here and there.
And any changes you make need to be clearly indicated. The exact methodology might vary depending on the style you use or your publisher’s preferences, but the following are a few general guidelines to follow.
The most common way to indicate changes you’ve made to someone else’s words is to surround those changes with brackets [ ].
If you’re quoting part of a longer sentence, and the subject of the sentence doesn’t fall naturally within the quoted material, you can add that subject.
“[She] always knew he was destined for greatness.”
Or if the subject of the sentence isn’t clear in the context of your writing or the quoted material, you can add a word or two to clarify.
“She [the artist’s mother] always knew he was destined for greatness.”
“[The artist’s mother] always knew he was destined for greatness.”
If you’re using quoted material as part of a sentence of your own, you might need to make minor changes to verb conjugation.
According to Dr. —, this new discovery “revolutionize[s] medical science.”
If the quoted material you want to use is separated by a bunch of text you don’t need that would make the quote too bulky, you can use ellipses . . . to indicate that you omitted some material.
According to Dr. —, this new discovery “revolutionize[s] medical science . . . beyond the wildest dreams of previous generations.”
A paraphrase is a much looser construction than quotes or excerpts, not needing any special characters or formatting. Essentially, you’re taking someone else’s ideas and putting them into your own words.
However, remember that they are someone else’s ideas, and therefore, proper credit needs to be given through attribution. Whether you choose in-text citations, footnotes, or endnotes, you’ll need to indicate any idea that’s not your own.
Keeping the Author’s Intentions Intact
When you use quotes, excerpts, or paraphrases to incorporate someone else’s ideas into your writing, you can make changes, especially when paraphrasing. However, whatever changes you make and whatever use you make of the other’s ideas, it’s important to keep their original intentions and message intact.
That means not twisting their words or selectively quoting them to make it sound like they said something you wouldn’t get from reading the original.
Not only is it a matter of ethics and integrity, but you also put yourself on shaky legal ground by doing so.
Remember, you don’t own those words; you’re just borrowing them. So, use them responsibly.
Rebecca Miller is a professional copyeditor and general fan of all things having to do with the written word and the English language.
You can check out her website at Oakdale Editing or connect through Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Email.
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Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.