“Patchwriting” is the term writing researcher Rebecca Moore Howard (1993) uses to describe the incomplete paraphrase strategy that writers just emerging in a field often find themselves using to make it seem as if they are more knowledgeable than they are.
Photo credit: Our Bad Media
It’s not just student writers who patchwrite. Howard reports on the work of Miguel Roig (2001), who found “that 22% of psychology professors patchwrite when presented with the task of summarizing complex text from an unfamiliar field” (qtd. in Howard, Serviss & Rodrigue p. 179). The photo in this post documents the patchwriting of journalist Fareed Zakaria, who likely patchwrote under the pressure of deadlines.
While patchwriting is often seen as a form of plagiarism (as in our Little Seagull handbook and the angry articles on Zakaria from Our Bad Media, see also), Howard argues that patchwriting is, essentially “a learning strategy rather than an act of academic dishonesty (p. 179). Student writers adopt the strategy of patchwriting because, as novices in a field, they are confronted with the limits of their knowledge or comprehension at the same time they face the expectation that they write as if they were masters. Because of these twin imperatives, students tend not to write from whole sources fully understood, instead they write from partially-digested sentences that seem relevant (Howard, Serviss & Rodrigue).
When student writers are new to a field, and are working on mastering new concepts and new writing genres, instructors should expect to see patchwriting as an intermediate stage as students write themselves into mastery and are better able to manage paraphrase and summary. When students patchwrite because they’re struggling to master new ideas and new writing strategies, instructors should work with students on better understanding the material and developing fluency with the genre.
Review your group’s profile of James Paul Gee for evidence of patchwriting. Then, in a comment, answer one of the two question clusters depending on whether your profile is patchwritten or not:
- To what degree do you see patchwriting in your group’s profile. What would it take to rework your profile to reduce or eliminate the patchwriting you found?
- How did you avoid patchwriting? To what degree does your profile meet academic expectations that you cite sources you use in your writng?
Rebecca Moore Howard. “A Plagiarism Pentimento.” Journal of Teaching Writing vol. 11, no. 3: 233-46.
Rebecca Moore Howard, Tricia Serviss, and Tanya K. Rodrigue. “Writing from Sources, Writing from Sentences.” Writing & Pedagogy vol. 2, no. 2: 177-192.
Miguel Roig. “Plagiarism and Paraphrasing Criteria of College and University Professors.” Ethics and Behavior vol. 11, no. 3: 307-324,