What Does It Mean to Patchwrite?

Plagiarism Opens in new window is an intentional act of deception involving the use of someone else’s work or ideas, and passing it off as one’s own. Patchwriting is a type of plagiarism which is characterized by the lack of deceptive intent.

The term patchwriting was labeled by Rebecca Howard (1995, 1999) and defined as ‘copying from a source texts and then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one synonym for another’ (1999, p. 17).

In patchwriting, often the language from one or more source texts is not only adopted, but also woven into the writer’s text, mixed with parts that have been written more autonomously; it shows signs of having been adapted to the new text: synonyms have been substituted, active verbs made passive or vice versa and so on.

Patchwriting, according to Howard, is virtually inevitable as writers learn to produce texts within a new discourse community, and is a beneficial part of the learning process,

  • a primary means of understanding difficult texts, of expanding one’s lexical, stylistic, and conceptual repertories, of finding and trying out new voices in which to speak. (1999, p. 18)

Patchwriting often occur out of absolute necessity. In a study of the progress of a second-language writer through a business course, Currie (1998) found that the student, Diana, worked diligently in the early weeks of the course to raise the level of her writing assignments, but was at real risk of not receiving the grade she needed to stay in her program. Eventually Diana hit upon the strategy of repeating words and phrases from her sources; in other words, she began to patchwrite.

From then on her teacher’s feedback was more positive. Although Diana adopted the patchwriting strategy consciously, she differed from the prototypical plagiarist in at least two important respects. First, unlike a student who buys an essay from the internet and thus gains credit without expending effort, Diana’s patchwriting cost her substantial time and energy. Currie notes that

  • It is difficult to read the juxtaposed texts without realizing the extraordinary time, effort, and patience it must have taken for Diana to struggle through the reading, find precisely those phrases or sentences that met her needs in terms of content and generality, and then weave them together, using still-developing syntactic skills, into what she hoped would bring her an acceptable grade. (1998, p.9)

In addition, there is no indication that Diana saw her strategy as cheating; in contrast, she described it as a positive approach to learning the specialist terminology of her area, as her teacher had encouraged her to (p. 10).

Patchwriting gives writers the chance to flex their muscles under controlled and guided circumstances—guided by the linguistic choices of the source authors.

Patchwriting comes about as a result of novice writers’ need for supports as they develop, and not because the writer intends to deceive the reader. Patchwriting and prototypical plagiarism can therefore be seen as subcategories of textual plagiarism, distinguished by the presence or absence of intention to deceive. Patchwriting, is therefore, a byproduct of the process of learning to write in a new context. It is, therefore, one aspect of language learning.