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.
So, you’ve written your masterpiece and think you’re ready to start your search for an editor? Great! But there’s a little prep work you can do ahead of time to make that process a little smoother.
When you contact your potential new editor, there are a few things they’ll need to know to get an idea of how best to serve you. You can save yourself and your editor a lot of time and trouble by thinking through and having answers ready for the following questions.
I’m sure there was some point in your elementary school English classes when your teacher went over the absolute rules for what words you capitalize and what words you don’t.
If you’ve been reading my blog for long, I doubt you’ll be surprised by what I have to say to that. The rules aren’t as cut and dried as your English teacher told you.
To be fair, the rules they taught you are generally true. For example, the names of people, cities, states, and countries are usually considered proper nouns and capitalized, even when used as an adjective.
However, there are exceptions to every rule, and that’s where style comes in.
Last week I wrote about dialogue tags. They’re a pretty simple device used to keep straight who’s saying what.
But what about punctuation? Is there a comma? No comma? Where does the comma go?
Punctuation can be a sticking point for many writers because it feels too technical, like science to an artistic mind. So, here are a few simple guidelines for punctuating your dialogue tags.
If you’re going the traditional-publishing route, this question probably won’t come up. The publisher arranges all of the steps of the publishing process, and your book will go through the proofreading process.
However, if you’re self-publishing, you’re probably looking for ways to cut out any unnecessary costs. A professional copyeditor has already done a thorough cleanup of your manuscript, and the book may have even gone through a designer. So, is another step really necessary?
Several months ago, I posted a list of commonly misspelled words most spelling checkers don’t flag because the misspellings are legitimate words themselves. They’re just not the word you were going for.
Recently, an online discussion among my fellow editors provided me with a wealth of new words to add to that list. So, with my thanks to my colleagues around the world, I’ve listed the new additions here for everyone to access freely. Enjoy.
*At the bottom of this post, I’ve included links to download the PDF versions of the list of these new additions, the original list, and a combined list of all of the words I’ve gathered so far.
With each passing year, our world is gradually becoming more and more concerned about respecting the voices and experiences of people and groups who, historically, haven’t had a say in how and if they are represented to the general public. This may have been due to race, religion, gender, cultural background, or physical and mental disabilities, among other reasons.
We’ll put aside the argument of political correctness for the moment. The fact is that writers have a responsibility to their readers to represent the world in the most honest and genuine way possible.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t include elements and characters from other people groups. That wouldn’t be true to the diverse world we live in. However, it’s impossible for any one person to be an expert on all peoples and groups, especially if they’re not a part of that group.
Sometimes, we need to bring in an expert. That’s where sensitivity readers come in.
Nothing will ever equal the expertise and value a trained professional editor can bring to your writing project. However, not everyone has the funds or opportunity to take every project to a pro. And if you do decide to hire an editor, the better shape your manuscript is in, the less work the editor has to do and the less they’ll charge for the work.
I’m in this position myself with this blog. It’s just not practical at this time for me to pay someone to edit each week’s post, so the burden of self-editing falls on me.
Editing your own work is difficult at best. Assuming you have the technical skills and grammar and punctuation knowledge, your mind still often refuses to see your own errors clearly. Even professional editors face this challenge.
But there are some tricks I use (and you can, too) to catch more of those errors and typos.
Last week, I wrote about some of my thoughts on the importance of sleep to our health, focus, and creativity, and I promised to talk this week about the changes I’m making in my own life.
Whether you’re writing or editing, anyone who works in publishing and the written word needs to be reading. Reading within your genre is important, sure, but broadening your range has all kinds of benefits.
I love fiction. It’s my way of unwinding at the end of the day, but I try to balance that with at least some nonfiction. I may not read as much of it as I do fiction, but it’s still a part of my routine.
So, what am I reading now? So glad you asked!
I just finished Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, and it’s made me reconsider a simple, essential part of my daily routine that I routinely neglect: sleep. It’s also been eye opening to consider how regularly shorting myself on sleep could be having a negative effect on my concentration and creativity.
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.