Patchwriting as a Technique

I’m trying to paraphrase, but I can’t get far enough from the original language to make it my own. What can I do?

Paraphrasing can be difficult when you’re struggling to understand what a source is saying in the first place. Authors (and you, too!) spend a lot of time carefully choosing the words that they use, but sometimes unfamiliar jargon (the technical terms used in a particular field) can make it hard for you to respond to the original text. Learning academic jargon is just like becoming fluent in a foreign language: you might need to practice using new vocabulary and sentence structures in order to become comfortable with communicating in a new way.

Patchwriting happens when you rephrase a portion of source material, but your language remains too close to the vocabulary and/or sentence structure of the original text. All patchwriting is a kind of paraphrase, but successful paraphrase is not patchwritten.patchwriting

If you use patchwriting in the final draft of an essay, your teachers will likely see this as an act of plagiarism, since you are not directly quoting the original author or successfully using paraphrase or summary to put the author’s ideas into your own words. But patchwriting can have its place in the early stages of note-taking: it can be a useful step in the process of becoming fluent in the language of a particular field or subject, as long as the patchwriting does not remain in your final draft.

So where and when is patchwriting useful?

Let’s say you encounter the following quotation while doing research on the role of women in early 20th century college athletics:

“The logic of separate spheres easily applied to athletics, where physical differences required separate activities. At college the goals of the womanly woman and the manly man included physical fitness. Advocacy of physical exercise took hold during the first generation [of female college students, 1860s-1880], with doctors and educators observing both the dyspeptic tendencies of the young educated male and the chronic weakness of the female participant.”


Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985) 103.

Paraphrase Attempt 1:

Mid 19th century society used physical differences to justify dividing activities into gender-specific separate spheres. Even though college men and women were both encouraged to exercise, the exercises they were to perform were divided because of these sex differences. This was because experts wanted to make sure that college education did not weaken the bodies of students who needed to be properly manly men, and womanly women after their school days were over.

If this paraphrase was in your final draft, you’d have a lot of problems. First of all, the language is too close to the original text without any quotations or citations–phrases like “separate spheres” and “manly men, and womanly women” are taken directly from the original text without attribution, while others like “manly, not sickly, young men” are technically not plagiarized, but they are a little too close to the original text. Text in red in the paragraph above is language that is much too close to the language of the original text. This is a classic example of patchwriting, where unfamiliar terminology (“separate spheres”) is borrowed from the original text.

But if this is the case, why are we talking about patchwriting in the first place?

While not appropriate for a final draft, patchwriting can be part of the process to help you to better understand your source material. Noticing where you have the most difficulty putting the original argument into your own words can point you to concepts that you might need to look up. In this example, you might need to do some research to understand what the “logic of separate spheres” really means. See Module II: Finding Sources if you need help figuring out where to look for this kind of definition.

Logic of separate spheres refers to one of the central ideals of 19th century American culture: that women and men had distinct (separate) physical, mental, and emotional capabilities that corresponded to the assignment of different social roles. Men were seen as best suited for public life and women for private, or domestic, activities.

If we go back to our paraphrase, we can see that this patchwriting is an attempt to figure out what these “separate spheres” are in terms of the argument that the original author is making. Here, patchwriting is being used to help you better understand the original text.

Now that you’ve clarified what these terms mean, you need to figure out what is really important about the original text for the argument you’re making. Doing so is important because even a short quotation can be used to support several different kinds of arguments in your own essay. Your act of patchwriting can help you identify the different components you noticed in the original author’s argument.

You could break down the author’s argument using the author’s original language, but in this case, it’s difficult for you because the author’s original argument is too full of jargon. Your patchwritten paraphrase attempt can make it easier to distill the most important parts of the author’s argument.

Now let’s look at your patchwritten paraphrase sentence by sentence:

Sentence 1) Mid 19th century society used physical differences to justify dividing activities into gender-specific separate spheres.

Sentence 2) Even though college men and women were both encouraged to exercise, the exercises they were to perform were divided because of these sex differences.

Sentence 3) This was because experts wanted to make sure that college education did not weaken the bodies of students who needed to be properly manly men, and womanly women after their school days were over.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s say you want to emphasize the point made in Sentence 2 in order to support the following argument: women were encouraged to be involved in an athletic culture, but football was seen as a sport that was too aggressive for women to play.

Once you’ve figured this out, return to the original source to see if a simple quotation would serve you. In this case, none of the three sentences in the original quote would provide all the information you want to offer, so you’re going to have to turn to paraphrase.

Let’s turn your patchwriting into paraphrase, using what you know about how you want to use this information and what you know about the importance of citing sources.

Paraphrase attempt 2:

Historian Barbara Miller Solomon has argued that exercise was seen as an important part of a mid-19th century college curriculum for both men and women, but cultural ideas about masculinity and femininity meant that each group was using exercise to achieve different roles in society (103).

As you can see, patchwriting helped us to identify unfamiliar jargon (“separate spheres”), determine what the original source was trying to say (cultural ideas about masculinity and femininity that determined different roles in society) and identify what part of the original source text we wanted to use to support our argument.

“The logic of separate spheres easily applied to athletics, where physical differences required separate activities. At college the goals of the womanly woman and the manly man included physical fitness. Advocacy of physical exercise took hold during the first generation [of female college students, 1860s-1880], with doctors and educators observing both the dyspeptic tendencies of the young educated male and the chronic weakness of the female participant.”

(Solomon, 103)

Sometimes you might need to paraphrase the same passage several times, as we did here, to get away from the original language and sentence structure of the original.

Make sure that any paraphrase is always cited so that your reader can go back to the original source text if she wants to learn more about the author’s argument.

There are a lot of debates around the usefulness of patchwriting, and we’ve drawn our argument from scholars and researchers who see it as a potentially productive step in your writing process.

If you want to learn more about patchwriting, check out this video by Rebecca Moore Howard, the scholar who developed this concept.