“Be sure to write it in your own words,” is a mantra that is repeated by educators at all academic levels. For students, the idea of writing in one’s own words is repeated from the first paragraphs written in grade school all the way to a doctoral thesis.
In the age of the Internet, almost any piece of knowledge or idea can be found, copied and presented in a matter of minutes. If being able to find the knowledge is what is most important, the extra step of rewriting what others have done seems superfluous.
So, why do instructors and publications care if something is written in original words, even if the sources are properly cited? While the Internet is a tool to find “the right words”, there are several reasons to put ideas and thoughts in one’s own voice.
Here are six reasons it is important to use one’s own words when writing.
1. Create and Contribute New Meaning
When copying the words of someone else, nothing new is created and nothing is contributed to the larger discussion. While it is critical to quote and reference the work of others, the part that is one’s own words is the part that adds value to the conversation and builds upon the work of others rather than merely repeating it. If everyone simply repeated what others have said and discovered before, nothing new would be created, discussed or invented. A change in words and context might help others better understand it, add a new perspective or make a connection that was previously missed.
Bottom Line: Learning to write in one’s own words helps form the skills needed to thinking creatively and meaningfully.
“It is important to write in your own words so that you contribute something new to society. If everyone copied someone else’s writing, it would be impossible to advance as a society (we’d still be copying each other’s petroglyphs!), not to mention how boring it would be! When you write in your own words, you say something in a new way—perhaps this new way will help someone else understand a topic they didn’t previously understand.”
- Shelley Mitchell, Oklahoma State University | Read full story
2. Learn How to Write
Regardless of academic or career choices, written communication is almost certainly an essential component. Email, social media, blogging and online communities have increased the amount most people write socially and professionally. As with any skill, the only way to improve one’s writing is to write often. By merely copying and pasting the words of others, one cannot learn how to effectively string words together and express thoughts, feelings and opinions, whether the writing task is a class assignment, an email or a professional manuscript.
Bottom Line: Learning to write well is a skill that will help communicate effectively academically, socially and professionally.
“When you plagiarize, you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to learn and showcase your skills.”
- Kaydee Jo, University of South Florida in Tampa | Read full story
3. Show Understanding of Material
While copying and pasting what others have written shows that the information was located, it doesn’t show that the information was read, understood or processed. Academic assignments are designed to show instructors that students understand topics and concepts, and are successfully able to apply it into a paper of their own. When a student or writer properly researches a topic, takes appropriate time to think through the material and write a paper in original words, the writing will reflect the due diligence and understanding involved.
Bottom Line: Writing an essay requires more than just finding information. It requires understanding information and making sure the writing reflects that level of understanding.
“We as teachers want to see that a) you understand the information, and b) you understand it enough to say it in a different way. If you cannot say it in your own words, you do not understand the information enough to pass a test on the subject, so study the information until you do. If you can explain something a multitude of ways, you really know your information. Take it from a biology he more you can put something in your own words, the more you know your ‘stuff’, and the more prestige you will have among your peers.”
- Shelley Mitchell, Oklahoma State University
“Writing in one’s own words not only shows a sense of originality, but that one has done ‘ultra-reading’ and has done it thoroughly in order to formulate their ideas in their own words.”
- Lisanda Poncane, University of KwaZulu Natal
4. Learn a Subject and Retain Information
Writing is one of the most effective ways to learn any subject. In fact, note taking has been found to be highly valuable in the classroom because writing helps people better understand and retain information. There is a significant difference in comprehension between when people takes their own notes and when people borrow someone else’s. This is partly because the notes are unfamiliar, but also because less of it was comprehended because less of the brain was engaged. Something similar happens when writing a paper for a class. Reading a textbook or a slew of articles on a topic can help learn it, but writing about it engages more of the brain and helps more of the information stick.
Bottom Line: Not writing in one’s own words means having less knowledge fully understood and retained in one’s memory.
“The intent of what you say only comes through when you write as yourself. Grammar, spelling, they help make your words clear, but to mean anything the words have to be your own.”
- Richard Howard, WriteCheck Facebook Fan
5. Demonstrate Integrity
Academic and scholarly integrity are demonstrated in work that is original. Writing is an opportunity to express one’s own voice, show how the writer has connected to and processed the information, and explain why the reached conclusions are important. Students are expected to complete an assignment individually, creatively and according to academic guidelines because, in doing so, students not only show due diligence, but learn to critically think about a topic and how to communicate thoughts intelligently and effectively.
Bottom Line: Writing originally is a mark of integrity because it reflects the due diligence of critically thinking and effectively communicating thoughts about a topic.
“By using your own words, you not only demonstrate intelligence and understanding, but also integrity.”
- Melinda O. Cunningham
6. Avoid Consequences of Plagiarism
In the midst of the stress, a tight deadline, and a lack of preparedness, students often think that plagiarizing and all its forms--copying and pasting information or changing a few words from an article--is the easiest way out. The consequences of plagiarism can often be severe, such as a student receiving an F for a class or being expelled from school. As students progress in their academic and professional careers, the consequences of plagiarism similarly increase in their magnitude, including loss of career, legal and financial repercussions. Perhaps the most compelling reason to write originally right now is to shape the good habits and work ethic necessary to be successful in the future.
Bottom Line: By writing in one’s own words, students can build the right habits to protect their future careers, reputations, and self-respect.
“Plagiarism can cause students to get kicked out of schools, journalists to lose their jobs, songwriters to be hit with plagiarism lawsuits, and politicians to losing their elected or appointed positions. I think that is what the message is: create good habits and don’t steal other people’s work.
- Renee Robins
“Writing in your own words saves you, as a student, a lot of embarrassment and low grades. When I encountered plagiarism, I had to inform the parents of a student that they were getting a zero on an assignment because they didn’t turn in their own work. Those conversations were not fun for me, the parent, or the student.”
- Shelley Mitchell, Oklahoma State University
Writing in your own words helps you create something new, build valuable life skills, shows that you understand the material, helps you learn the subject and makes the time spent on the assignment more valuable.
While there is a time and a place to quote others and use their words directly, if the bulk of your assignment comes from the words of others, even with attribution, nearly all of the benefit of the work is lost.
While the ability to find information is very important, it is only a small part of what an assignment is about. When instructors tell you to write an assignment in your words, they aren’t just trying to make the task harder for you, they’re trying to make it more valuable.
Furthermore, when a student turns in an assignment written by someone else, there is no chance for the instructor to see how well they grasp the material and grade their progress. That makes it impossible to help the students learn and become better in the subject.
So while it might seem like an unimportant technicality, in truth paraphrasing and rewriting is a large part of what makes an assignment useful, both to the student and to the educator.
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