Ivory Tower Writing #14: On paraphrasing and quoting

This post covers the basic of paraphrasing and quoting.

When you’re writing your paper, you are often required to read either articles or books relevant to whatever it is you’re writing. And you will find ideas that you would like to use in your paper. But if you were to simply copy-paste them, that would be called plagiarism and it is a grave academic sin. So, how do you avoid committing this sin?


The idea of paraphrasing is similar to summarizing. I say “similar”, not “the same”. You are expected to present the author’s original idea in your own words. The point of this is to integrate the author’s idea into your argument so your paper doesn’t look like a Frankenstein’s monster of bits and bits of ideas. A paraphrase should ideally be shorter than the original source and followed by a proper citation.

Here’s an example. The first paragraph is an original quote:

“The West created the capitalist system, nationalism, secularism and democracy, all of which played havoc with Islamic societies; it masterminded the overthrow of the caliphate, paving the way for the break-up of the Muslim world into myriad, pseudo-independent states that remained prey to imperialist exploitation; and it created the state of Israel on Muslim land.” (Ward, 2009, pp. 150-151 [paywall])

That quote comes from an article that discusses the ideological underpinnings of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, an Islamist organization. Below is my paraphrase of the paragraph:

The dominant narrative held by Hizbut Tahrir is essentially anti-Western. The West had created, perpetuated, and even in some cases thrusted upon Islamic societies many ideological constructs, e.g. democracy, capitalism, nationalism, and secularism, which are contributed to the to the disintegration of the Muslim world. These reinforce a world-view that is binary: there is the Islamic world versus the imperialist Western world (Ward, 2009).

See how I assimilated Ward’s idea of “Western ideas are perceived to be destructive” into my own style of writing? I “borrowed” his ideas to support my own argument, which is “Hizbut Tahrir ideology is anti-Western”. Note that I only borrow some of Ward’s actual words (because personally, I find Ward’s style a bit too dramatic).

Paraphrasing is not the act of changing bits and bits of words here and there. That’s actually borderline plagiarism. A common practice is someone would paste a portion of text in Word, right-click on one word, select “Synonyms” from the drop-down menu, and select a synonym to replace the word. Rinse and repeat. Trust me, I have to deal with that a lot.

Another practice is what I call “back-to-back translation”. Basically, the writer would paste a portion of text in Google Translate (in English), translate it into another language, copy the translation, and then re-translate the translation back into English.

Direct quotation

On the other hand, sometimes you will find some ideas that are too good to paraphrase. These ideas are either very important or essential, as they represent the crux of the author’s argument, and you feel it would be unfair to rewrite them in your own words. At times like these, you are allowed the freedom to directly quote the author’s words.

A quotation in an academic paper often looks like this:

But FM3–24 also replicates more tendentious interpretations. It includes as one of its vignettes the retraining of the Malayan police. Since this misconstrues the sequencing of events in Malaya, it is worth quoting at length:

By 1952, the insurgency had reached a stalemate. The British then established a new strategy. The strategy included reforming and retraining the entire Malaya Police Force. First, 10,000 corrupt or incompetent police officers were removed from the force. Then, police officers who had proven the most competent in operations were made instructors in new police schools. During 1952 and 1953, every police officer attended a four-month basic training course. Police commissioned and non-commissioned officers were sent to three- to four-month advanced courses. All senior Malayan police officers were required to attend the police intelligence school. There they learned the latest criminal investigation techniques. Teams of Britain’s top police officers taught them intelligence collection and analysis methods as well. Dozens of the most promising Malayan officers attended the full yearlong course in advanced police operations in Britain.

[Quote truncated for clarity]

Source: Karl Hack (2009) “The Malayan Emergency as Counter-Insurgency Paradigm”, Journal of Strategic Studies, 32:3, 383-414 [paywall]

Depending on the style of the publisher, a quote is usually indented a bit and written in smaller font. Notice that the writer, before writing the quote, also provides some commentary to provide some context to the quote.

Now, a paper with many quotes isn’t exactly good scholarship, unless you are interpreting works of art/literature. A rule of thumb that I often follow is that a paper should comprise of 10% direct quotations, however, this rule is not absolute. When you feel like your own voice is getting drowned out by other authors, you’re quoting too much. This instinct, however, needs to be trained.


Both paraphrasing and quoting are important skills that you need in academic writing. Now, the basics are quite simple; however, you’ll need to practice a lot so you can use them effectively. What, were you expecting an easy way out? Dream on.

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