Quoting Vs. Paraphrasing: Best Practices When Using Source Material
Published on September 11, 2023 From The Editors
Legal writers frequently draw from source material such as statutes, case law, and published articles. Knowing how to properly incorporate such material into your own written work, though, can be challenging. In particular, how do you determine when—and how frequently—to quote directly from source material?
Writers should never just copy and paste sentences from source material verbatim into their own work without attributing it. Doing so is plagiarism. Understanding the implications of plagiarism helps preserve not only the integrity of your legal writing and practice but also your contributions to the advancement of legal scholarship.
When incorporating material from outside sources into your writing, your options are (1) to include the exact material as a quotation attributable to your source or (2) to paraphrase the material in your own words, citing the source.
How to Choose Between Quoting and Paraphrasing
So how do you choose between quoting and paraphrasing? The key is to recognize that excessive quoting should be avoided. Writers who rely too heavily on quotations seem lazy, as if they are incapable of making a point on their own. Moreover, most audiences find lengthy quotes or series of quotes tiresome.
Bryan A. Garner warns legal writers in The Elements of Legal Style that, “[t]hough you may be tempted to quote large chunks of others’ writing to win your points, you drastically diminish the chances of having the material actually read.”
- Quotations should be reserved for exceptional circumstances. Sometimes the particular language of the source material is important and should therefore be quoted exactly—for instance, when providing a definition or discussing the interpretation of a statute.
- Other times, an author may feel that a particular line from the source material cannot be improved upon, that a certain sentence is evocative or controversial, or that the words of a particular source convey a sense of authority.
- In most cases, paraphrasing (while still citing the source of facts and ideas) is the better option. Paraphrasing, by the way, does not mean simply making minor, cosmetic changes to language from source material. It means summarizing the material in the context of your own argument in a way that is distinctive and new.
- When paraphrasing, you can often provide information in a more concise, better-organized way than you could if relying on multiple or lengthy quotes. Further, you are better able to maintain your own voice, which is more likely to keep audiences engaged.
Take Your Written Work to the Next Level
Knowing how to effectively borrow from source material is an important skill for legal writers. Quoting source material can bolster a writer’s argument, and sometimes it is downright essential for an author to make his point. Such quotations should always be relevant, accurate, and presented as concisely as possible. And they should always be used sparingly. Quotations should be used to elevate and support a writer’s work, not as a crutch for authors who have trouble putting forth arguments in their own words.
Courtney Cavaliere has been an editor at Texas Bar Books for thirteen years and has an MA in Journalism from the University of Texas. She enjoys creating mosaics and stained glass panels in her spare time and is a member of the Austin Mosaic Guild.