Cut and Paste, Responsibly

cut and pasteIn recent posts, I have emphasized the need for citation in formal technical, scientific, and academic writing. An expectation of the discourse is that both ideas and language not originating with the author are credited. One notable exception to this rule is the use of internal templates. Sometimes referred to as “boilerplate” or “cut and paste,” template language may have originated from any number of sources.

Templates can be the product of one gifted author whose language has become standard for future writers in an organization. Templates can also be generated by committee, distributed by email, and their use mandated by an organization as part of a policy and procedures manual. In government organizations, templates are often created as part of policy guidelines or handbooks designed to help government employees implement Congressional regulations.

Some templates are designed for convenience. Others evolve as time passes, or stagnate and become more of a hindrance than a help. Still others contain a labyrinth of legal language that has been reviewed by solicitors and tested in court.

However created, a good template is useful for two reasons:

  1. Templates streamline the way organizations do business. Without them, bureaucracies would move even slower than they currently do, if such a pace were imaginable.
  2. Templates contain the legal language necessary to protect the people who administer the nation’s laws in good faith.

Templates are generally the property of the organization that uses them. Therefore, writers who work for that organization can cut and paste from templates freely without having to cite the template. Unfortunately, the freedom to cut and paste sometimes leads to writing that is needlessly obtuse, overly long, or poorly organized.

Writers who are working with templates should consider their context, their audience, and their purpose:

  1. Context – What happened in the real world (i.e., not my organization[1]) to make this document necessary? What will happen in the real world after this document is issued?
  2. Audience – Who will make a decision in the real world after this document is issued? What type of decision will they make? Do I have expert information that should influence that decision? How can I best convey that information to them?
  3. Purpose – How does this document align both with my organization’s mission and with my own values?

The answers to these questions will help you determine how much template language to cut and paste, what to paraphrase, where to include it, and how to frame it.

Here is an example:

An environmental scientist works with sea turtles. This scientist has species descriptions for five sea turtles common to his region. The descriptions are lengthy. They include size, weight, shell markings, anatomic features, dietary preferences, migratory patterns, courting behaviors, nesting habitats, reproductive cycles, and mortality rates.

Let’s suppose that the scientist needs to write a species status assessment, a comprehensive scientific document that will be used for all decisions regarding the sea turtles’ status as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. In this case, the scientist should be thorough, recognizing that the document will serve multiple audiences in many contexts.

Now let’s suppose that the scientist is providing a biological opinion about a development project that may disturb turtle nesting grounds. In this case, the scientist can select information specifically regarding courting behaviors, nesting habitats, and reproductive cycles, because those are the parts of the species descriptions most likely to be affected by the project. Other information about the species can be condensed or paraphrased, if necessary used to frame the more relevant information.

I have worked with a lot of writers who have resisted this sort of change, insisting that if they do not use the template their work will be rejected. Unfortunately, I have worked in some pretty rigid organizations where management is reluctant to change.

But remember the two reasons for good templates: they make life easier and they contain language that has passed legal muster. If a template does not fulfill those two requirements, then you are working for the document, not the other way around. And that just does not make sense.

All of the best leaders that I have had the privilege of working with encourage critical thinking about writing, even when a template is the starting point for a document.


[1] I work with writers whose documents are reviewed internally before being published externally. Those writers need to think externally. If you write internal corporate or government communications, then your organization is your “real world.”

Michelle Baker is the Conservation Writing Pro. She teaches environmental scientists how to write more clearly. And she edits scientific journal articles and APA dissertations. Contact her for all your writing training and editing needs: 

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