When you write a paper, you’ll want to support your claims with information from outside sources. These sources can provide background material, or serve as expert testimony. You may even want to introduce some sources that do not support your argument, so you can criticize them!
There are three ways to include outside sources in your paper:
- Common Knowledge
A quotation is the most direct way to use another source. It is a small piece of speech or text from a document. Quotations are great when you want to share both the author’s ideas and the unique way the author has expressed them. They also come in handy when the author has stated an idea so well that you can’t do a better job on your own.
It’s important to format your quotations correctly so that your readers 1) know that they are quotations and 2) can identify where the quotations come from. For shorter quotations (fewer than 40 words for APA, fewer than 4 lines for MLA), mark the boundaries with “double” quotation marks. Longer quotations are called block quotes; we separate a block quote from the main text by starting it on a new line and indenting the entire quotation. Block quotes do not require double quotation marks, since we have already separated them from the main text another way. All quotations must be followed by an internal citation. In APA, this includes the author name, the year of publication, and the page or paragraph number if available. In APA, the format looks like this: (Author, Year, Page #). In MLA, it includes just the author’s name and the page or paragraph number. It looks like this: (author page#).
A quotation should always be properly introduced, and followed up with a complete analysis. In other words, when you use a quotation, you also have to explain what’s important about it. One way to introduce a quotation is to mention the author or the work, and a general idea of what the quotation says.
In her groundbreaking study A History of Cheeses, Brie Camembert also supplies serving advice: “Pairing cheese with crackers is so over! Use pears or apples instead” (357)This introduction to the quote lists the author and the work, and also mentions that the quotation concentrates on serving advice. This provides a context for the reader to understand the quote. But the introduction is not enough. We also need an analysis. What are we supposed to make of Ms. Camembert’s taste? Is the writer using this quote to endorse her point of view, or for some other reason?
Now that we’ve added a topic sentence and a sentence of analysis, readers will know why the quote was included. The writer wants us to see this quotation as an example of changing attitudes toward grain foods.
American dietary habits are changing. In her groundbreaking study A History of Cheeses, Brie Camembert also supplies serving advice: “Pairing cheese with crackers is so over! Use pairs or apples instead” (357). Camembert is just one of the many Americans turning their backs on grains.
This process of introducing and analyzing quotations can take up a lot of space. You want most of your essay to be your own work, since including a lot of quotations can distract readers from the argument. Therefore, use quotations sparingly.
A paraphrase is a statement of an author’s ideas in your own language. Paraphrasing allows you to point out what’s important about the material, and possibly improve on the author’s original language. But it takes practice. Paraphrasing involves more than just substituting the original author’s words. A good paraphrase should also transpose or restructure the order of words in the sentence.
Let’s look at an example quotation from a Tracy Clark-Flory essay about movie star Ryan Gosling:
I suspect the key to Gosling madness, though, is that he has all these qualities, but unlike so many Hollywood heartthrobs, he hasn't destroyed the hero fantasy with real-life bad boy antics -- not yet anyway (Clark-Flory, 2011, para. 7).
If you were writing about Ryan Gosling or celebrities in general, this quotation might be useful. It identifies why Gosling seems different from other hunky male movie stars.
Here is one attempt to paraphrase the quotation, but there’s something wrong with it:
Tracy Clark-Flory (2011) guesses that people are obsessed with Gosling because he possesses heroic qualities, but unlike other Hollywood hunks, he has not damaged our mental image of him with bad behavior in real life.
This paraphrase is not complete. I have changed many of the author’s word choices, but not her sentence structure. If I identify the main parts of speech in the two sentences, they’ll both look like this:
(Subject) (verb) that (Subject) (verb) (object), but(adjective) (noun), (Subject) (negation) (verb)(object) with (adjective)(noun).
Here’s another attempt:
In a recent Salon article, Tracy Clark-Flory (1999) suggests that Ryan Gosling is so beloved by his fans because his real-life persona actually matches the imagined Hollywood ideal. He’s different from the other stars, who regularly spoil their good names with lewd acts or bad behavior.
This example works better because there are significant changes to the structure. I split one sentence into two. The first sentence also includes an introductory clause that provides the reader with the name of the source.
Note that a paraphrase still requires an internal citation.
A summary can give the reader a lot of information in a short amount of space. A summary is a very condensed form of a paraphrase. While most paraphrases are about the same length as the original quotation, summaries only include the main ideas.
Let’s look at another example. At the blog Observations on Film Art, the film critic David Bordwell speculates on why audiences find some movies fascinating despite being “spoiled” on their details: the basics of the plot, classic lines, even the ending in some cases. At one point, he looks back on how movie audiences behaved in the past:
There’s harder evidence that some people preferred convenience to coherence. In 1950 Twentieth Century-Fox announced that All About Eve (1950) would be screened only in ‘scheduled performances.’ No one would be seated after the film began. Premiering at Manhattan’s Roxy Theatre, Eve ran for a week under the new policy. It failed. People hadn’t heard about the new rules, showed up late, and weren’t admitted. The results were angry lines outside and empty seats within. The practice was halted and Eve screened in continuous performance. The Hollywood Reporter attributed the failure to ‘the public’s deeply ingrained habit of going to a movie show at any desired hour, when most convenient or on impulse.’ (Bordwell, 2011, para. 17)
This is a very long quotation (9 sentences!). Bordwell is a terrific writer, but your readers won’t need to know all the twists and turns in the theater schedule of All About Eve. A summary will reduce this paragraph to its main idea:
In the past, movie audiences showed up at the theater whenever they wanted, instead of waiting for the beginning of the show. When studios tried to enforce “scheduled performances,” audiences revolted, and the studios relented (Bordwell, 2011).
In this summary, I turn 9 sentences into two: one to restate the claim of the paragraph, and the other to restate the evidence.
There’s one circumstance in which you do not need to quote or cite a source: when the information is common knowledge. If you are writing a general paper, then common knowledge is defined as information that can be found in several places. For instance, I can write that Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre without citing a source, because that information can be found in several places.
If you are writing a specialized paper, the definition of common knowledge extends to information that is well known within your field. For example, if you are a psychology student, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will be well known to everyone else in your field, so you will not need to provide a citation when you mention it.