When to Quote and When to Paraphrase

It’s a pity when surface problems scuttle otherwise strong scholarship. As an editor, I’ve noticed that poorly handled quotations are particularly damning. Inelegant use of prior scholarship can give the impression that a writer is unsophisticated, or even amateur. Naturally, research does involve mining books and articles to inform our own arguments, which are ideally novel and substantial but still reference that prior work. So of course there’s a temptation to repurpose existing literature that seems to say exactly what needs to be said in order to get to ideas that are original. It can certainly be difficult to think around the particular ways in which influential scholars have formulated cornerstone concepts. Because quoting prior scholarship is so integral to most academic disciplines, it pervades the research process. Material recorded verbatim in the information-gathering stage can find its way into manuscripts. Heck, drafting sometimes even starts with a skeleton of quotes germane to a topic; new writing is then added as connective tissue pulling it all together. Here’s what that method looks like: “quotation” + enough original material to get to the next point + “another quotation” And then there’s the quote-sandwich technique we all learned in college (or even high school): short introduction + “quotation” + brief explanation (quickly followed by another quote sandwich) I’ve noticed that these “quote quilt” approaches are favored by graduate students and scholars writing their first manuscripts, which tend to grow out of their dissertations. But despite its associations with student work, I wouldn’t say that stitching quotations together is a strictly verboten scholarly drafting method. I’ve used it myself. Using quotations to anchor...

The Tweed Philosophy on Subheads

Section headings, a.k.a. subheads, can be powerful tools for the academic writer. Without them, chapters in scholarly books and journal articles would be huge, undifferentiated blocks of text. Subheads can announce topics, they can transition for us, they can display wit, and they can scaffold. Perhaps that’s why it’s tempting to rely on them a bit too much. As an editor, I have seen pitch-perfect subheads, but I have also seen them overused and haphazardly phrased. (I sometimes wonder whether ineffective subheads are left over from much earlier drafts and are simply out of place in the revised material.) Clearly, subheads can be powerful, and they can strengthen already strong manuscripts. They can’t, however, make up for deficiencies in argumentation. So to use subheads well, we must implement them judiciously and conscientiously. So how do we strike that balance—employing subheads strategically without basing too much of our organizational strategy on them? Let’s start with The Chicago Manual of Style‘s take: 1.53 Subheads—general principles Subheads within a chapter should be short and meaningful and, like chapter titles, parallel in structure and tone. It is rarely imperative that a subhead begin a new page. The first sentence of text following a subhead should not refer syntactically to the subhead; words should be repeated where necessary. For example: SECONDARY SPONGIOSA The secondary spongiosa, a vaulted structure. . . not SECONDARY SPONGIOSA This vaulted structure . . . So subheads should be brief, informative, and parallel in structure. And running text should not immediately refer to them. I would take this advisement a bit further: the first part of a section following a subhead should act as if the subhead...

Clichés on Trial

How far would you go to avoid using a cliché? The second half of this NYT post has useful perspective on the perils—and merits—of oft-used phrases. The moral of the story: If there is thought behind the cliché, why avoid it? As long as you are keeping the focus on your ideas and not on your turn of phrase, you are in good shape. Image from The Cliché Challenge: How Various Clichés of the Media and Establishment are Faring...

“Scared”? The Punctuation That’s Eroding Your Credibility

One of the most powerful tools—and persistent hobgoblins—of communicators is the use of scare quotes. They’re used to distance the writer from the term in question. When someone makes the two-finger air-quotes gesture while speaking, that’s the real-world equivalent of written scare quotes. Examples: astrological “science” “life” in prison The scare quotes strongly imply that astrology isn’t really a science and question the degree to which incarceration can be considered truly living. To an extent, the quotation marks are useful. They quickly signal to a reader that a term is to be treated with a grain of salt. But scare quotes can easily and quickly be overused, diluting their power. To avoid this happening to you, dear reader, follow these handy tips: Say what you mean. Sometimes scare quotes force your readers to guess which aspect of the term you are undercutting. (Are you saying that astrology is regrettably unscientific or that astrology should aspire to be an art rather than a science? What is it about calling astrology a science that you find objectionable?) Good writing shouldn’t be a guessing game for readers. Don’t use scare quotes when words will do the job. The Chicago Manual of Style suggests using “so-called” before the dubious term. The example given is as follows: So-called child protection sometimes fails to protect. Don’t use quotes for emphasis; they can easily be taken for scare quotes. There’s nothing more cringe-inducing than quotation marks used to denote emphasis: Try these “all-beef” hot dogs! If you want your impassioned statements to be taken seriously, skip the quotation marks; consider italics. In case you need more...