Quote Rarely, Paraphrase Often, Cite Generously (Part 1/2)

Part 1: Quoting the Words of Others in Public Health Writing

Do your best to avoid direct quotations when writing papers in your public health classes. It’s a comment I find myself making again and again on the first round or two of papers submitted by public health graduate students in their first semester. Quotations should be special, I explain. Enclosing someone else’s words in inverted commas draws attention to the exact language they used. You are signaling to your reader that the words and syntax matter as much as the point you are trying to make.

Quote the language of law and policy when you need to explain and analyze it. Quote the language of multi-media campaigns. Use the words of real people (from qualitative research and journalism) when the words themselves offer a window into thoughts, experience, perspective. Quote the words of public figures when you are analyzing their motives, when holding them accountable. On rare occasions, quote a sentence or two from a journal article or book because those exact words sharpen the point you are trying to make in a way that your own words will not.

Quotations should always add value. If they don’t, paraphrase.

All public health writing is essentially an act of translation. The writer is pulling key information on a given topic together to answer a question for a particular audience. Sometimes that reader is a real person, sitting at a desk waiting for our email attachment. She has asked us to gather and synthesize information because she needs it for a proposal, a presentation, a report, or an article. She may be in the process of creating a budget for the coming year and in need of information that will help her decide how to allocate funds for prevention, treatment, or a community program. In other cases, your readers may be a more general audience, looking for information on a topic they want to understand.

In either case, a document that simply strings together large chunks of other people’s words is not useful. Your readers are looking to you to do the work, to transform the information into simple language, to pull together information from multiple sources, and different types of sources so they don’t have to.

When I was an MPH student, I was one of those students who turned in papers filled with quotes. And I was surprised by my professors’ recommendations that I drop the habit. Before deciding to get an MPH, I studied English literature. The words of others, of the authors I was studying, were my data. Start with a quote then analyze the words in front of you and their relationship to other parts of the book and to dialogue, character development, or story arc. For me, paraphrasing often meant providing a gloss of the story’s connective tissue, the historical context it was bringing to life, or its connections to other works by the same author or her peers.

In other words, my thirteen years of previous graduate and undergraduate study (PhD, MA, and BA) had trained me to lean on the words of others. In the MPH program, I had to unlearn all I thought I knew about writing. Becoming more comfortable with and understanding the role of paraphrasing was just one of the many aspects of writing I needed to rethink and practice.

If you are a frustrated student in a similar situation, I hope you will take heart from my story. With practice (usually in response to feedback from professors and colleagues), I did adjust. My writing is now clearer and I feel more in control of what I am saying because I am processing new, complex information more directly and then talking about it in my own voice, for my own purposes. That doesn’t mean I find the process easy. I often struggle to understand the technical jargon and data speak of much of the public health literature I read, so I am always translating for myself first.

If you are a professor who is perplexed by a run of papers laden with quotation marks, consider devoting a few minutes in class to talk about the best uses for quotations in public health writing. And talk about when and how you use quotations in your own writing. When does it work for you? When do you find yourself doing it? What strategies do you have for paraphrasing?

Click here for Part 2: Translating the Words of Others and Crediting Sources

Author: Jennifer Beard

Director of the Public Health Writing Program

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