Basic writing skills for term papers and Internet writing

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Everyone probably learns some basic writing skills in high school and college English. In my experience, if they don’t promptly forget these skills, they are at least reluctant to apply them to other classes besides English. Nevertheless, we’re never finished with the need to write and do it well. Teachers of other subjects besides English expect well-written term papers. So do people who read Internet content. Here are four basic skills that every writer needs to know: paraphrase, summary, critique and synthesis.

When a paper or article requires research, the writer must reproduce the ideas from the sources, but not copy the exact wording. Exact copying with proper attribution is called quoting and requires some kind of typographic convention such as quotation marks or block indenting to differentiate the quotation from the writer’s own prose. Exact copying without proper attribution and typography is called plagiarism. In school, it qualifies the student for an automatic F, or should. Out of school it deserves equally dire consequences.

A paraphrase means a restatement of the source in completely different words. All of the ideas in the original are present in the paraphrase, so both are about the same length. Rewriting a paragraph or short article requires a student to demonstrate reading comprehension and restate the source without introducing a foreign point of view.

A summary entails selecting the most important points in the source and expressing them in the student’s own words. It will be significantly shorter. It requires the student to demonstrate not only understanding the source well enough to express its ideas correctly, but also his or her ability to discern the difference between the central points and the supporting details.

Hey, look! You don’t even need a computer!

These first two techniques demonstrate the student’s reading comprehension and ability to restate ideas accurately and objectively. They do nothing to demonstrate the student’s own thinking. A critique of some source writing requires not only an objective paraphrase or summary, but also the ability to point out its strengths and weaknesses.

“Criticize” does not properly mean, “find fault with,” but it does require evaluation and judgment. Has the original author written facts? Opinions? Rumors? Do the original writer’s data justify whatever conclusion the passage reaches? Is the source well reasoned and well written?

Alas of too many politicians, newspaper columnists, and other commentators indulge in mindless ranting. It merely demonstrates that they have forgotten, if they ever learned in the first place, what a proper critique requires: dispassionate analysis, acknowledgement of some value in viewpoints contrary to their own, and recognition of problems with viewpoints they agree with.

Any research-based writing ought to be based on more than one source. The student must find information from a number of sources and combine it all into one unified piece of writing, a process called synthesis. A teacher need only look at the footnotes to see if the student has made the attempt. If a paper has, say, three points and all of the footnotes in each point refer to a single source, the student has done nothing more than copy three points from three sources and put them in some order.

A synthesis requires all of the abilities of the first three skills plus the ability to notice and make connections between the facts and ideas expressed in two or more other writings. A good synthesis will therefore express the student’s originality. The paper will present ideas that are not fully present in any of the source material. In contrast to the previous example, in a good three-point paper based on three sources, each point will refer to each source.

So far, I have described these techniques in terms of student writings. Internet writers have particular need to recall these basic techniques. Unlike in the print world, “content” does not refer to the intellectual content of a piece of writing, but to its expression in words. The web has hundreds of places where writers can submit articles. Nearly every one of them demands original content. Everyone who expects to get paid for writing articles will send the same intellectual content to multiple sites, using a process called spinning.

At first glance, spinning sounds dishonest, like what politicians’ public relations staff does to put their bosses’ gaffes into the best possible light and paint their bosses’ opponents as some kind of extremist. In the world of Internet writing, however, spinning simply means the process of taking one piece of intellectual content and turning it into multiple articles that each constitute original content acceptable for separate publication.

Software designers offer products that, they say, will automatically spin an article. I have never been tempted to investigate them. Everything I read about it tells me that computer spinning varies from unreadable to unintelligible, and it takes a lot of work to mold it into something worth submitting for publication. So if I want to repurpose this post, what can I do with it?

First, I can rewrite every paragraph using different words. The resulting paraphrase will likewise be something over 1000 words long and suitable for submission to other sites that welcome long articles. I can write as many paraphrases as I want to. Second, I can write any number of summaries, either of the whole article or some part of it, and submit them to places that feature shorter articles. Each summary may emphasize completely different points from the others.  In that case, I may be able to prepare a synthesis of several of them that results in another long article, completely different from this one.

Since in my view, my research, reasoning, and writing are impeccable, I don’t see how I would write a critique while spinning my own articles. I can use that technique as appropriate when I write a new one, but of course, apply it to someone else’s writings.

And I need to say as explicitly as I can that spinning someone else’s intellectual content for publication is every bit as dishonest as plagiarism. The techniques of paraphrase and summary should amount to only part of an original article. Perhaps paraphrase a couple of paragraphs from each of two sources. Summarize longer passages from other sources. Critique them if you choose. But to have any article worth publishing, make your own synthesis along the way. Spin your own writing as much as you want in any way you want. Professionals use the same basic writing skills as students.

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