Writing academically


Within academic writing it is advised that a combination of both direct and indirect quotes (paraphrasing) are used. Often it is better to paraphrase what an author has said as opposed to using lengthy direct quotations. But what does it mean ‘to paraphrase’? According to the MacMillan English Dictionary (MacMillan, 2012:online), to paraphrase is “to express what someone else has said or written using different words, especially in order to make it shorter or clearer.” When you paraphrase another author's writing you rewrite their argument using your own words, phrasing and interpreting it in your own way.

How to paraphrase

  • change the vocabulary
  • reorganise the structure of the argument
  • cite the author directly,

For example the direct quote from Halliday (1978:1) “A child creates, first his child tongue, then his mother tongue, in interaction with that little coterie of people who constitute his meaning group …”

  • Halliday (1978) claims that children develop their language by interacting with those around them
  • OR
  • Children develop their language by interaction with those around them (Halliday, 1978). 

Some helpful guidelines

  • As you study and write your notes do not copy chunks of text directly out of the book, instead always write your study notes in your own words. Remember to note which book or article your notes were drawn from for your reference information.
  • Check your writing against the books and articles you are using as sources. If the words you have written are too similar to the original, you should try to revise your own wording.

Once you have taken notes from the original source, work only from your notes; put the original article or book away. 

Successful vs unsuccessful paraphrases

Paraphrasing is often defined as putting a passage from an author into “your own words” but what are your own words? How different must your paraphrase be from the original?

The paragraphs below provide an example by showing a passage as it appears in the source, two paraphrases that follow the source too closely, and a legitimate paraphrase.

The Passage as It Appears in the Source

Critical care nurses function in a hierarchy of roles. In this open heart surgery unit, the nurse manager hires and fires the nursing personnel. The nurse manager does not directly care for patients but follows the progress of unusual or long-term patients. On each shift a nurse assumes the role of resource nurse. This person oversees the hour-by-hour functioning of the unit as a whole, such as considering expected admissions and discharges of patients, ascertaining that beds are available for patients in the operating room, and covering sick calls. Resource nurses also take a patient assignment. They are the most experienced of all the staff nurses. The nurse clinician has a separate job description and provides for quality of care by orienting new staff, developing unit policies, and providing direct support where needed, such as assisting in emergency situations. The clinical nurse specialist in this unit is mostly involved with formal teaching in orienting new staff. The nurse manager, nurse clinician, and clinical nurse specialist are the designated experts. They do not take patient assignments. The resource nurse is seen as both a caregiver and a resource to other caregivers. . . . Staff nurses have a hierarchy of seniority. . . . Staff nurses are assigned to patients to provide all their nursing care (Chase, 1995:156).

1. Word-for-Word Plagiarism

2. A Patchwork Paraphrase

3. A Legitimate Paraphrase

 Shared Language

Perhaps you’ve noticed that a number of phrases from the original passage appear in the legitimate paraphrase: critical care, staff nurses, nurse manager, clinical nurse specialist, nurse clinician, resource nurse.

If all these phrases were in red, the paraphrase would look much like the ‘Patchwork’ example.’ The difference is that the phrases in the legitimate paraphrase are all precise, economical, and conventional designations that are part of the shared language within the nursing discipline (in the too-close paraphrases they’re red only when used within a longer borrowed phrase).

In every discipline and in certain genres (such as the empirical research report), some phrases are so specialized or conventional that you can’t paraphrase them except by wordy and awkward circumlocutions that would be less familiar (and thus less readable) to the audience.

When you repeat such phrases, you’re not stealing the unique phrasing of an individual writer but using a common vocabulary shared by a community of scholars.

Some Examples of Shared Language You Don’t Need to Put in Quotation Marks

  • Conventional designations: e.g. physician’s assistant, chronic low-back pain
  • Preferred bias-free language: e.g. persons with disabilities

Technical terms and phrases of a discipline or genre: e.g. reduplication, cognitive domain, material culture, sexual harassment


  • Chase, S. K. (1995) The social context of critical care clinical judgment. Heart and Lung: The Journal of Acute and Critical Care. Vol. 24. No. 2: 154-162.         
  • Halliday, M. (1978) Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning. London: Arnold.
  • MacMillan (2012) MacMillan Dictionary. [Online] Available from: http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/paraphrase

Adapted from The Writing Centre – The University of Wisconsin 

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