Saturday 2 February 2013

Five Ways to Improve Your Use of Quotes in Essay Writing

1. The first rule of using quotes is "Don't use the word 'quote'!" Really! I'm not kidding! When you use the words of someone else, you are quoting. When they use their own words, they are not quoting. So it's absolutely wrong to write: "When Abraham Lincoln quoted 'Four score and seven years ago...'" Just write "When Lincoln said..."

2. The second rule is also not to use the word "quote." Don't introduce a quote and then go on to say "In this quote..." You should be able to integrate this into your writing without using the word quote. For example, I just assigned an essay to my students on the mood in the poem "I Sit and Look Out" by Walt Whitman. The poem uses the word "degradations." Instead of quoting the line and writing "In this quote misery is conveyed through the word "degradations," it's better to write "The mood of misery is created by the use of the word "degradations" in "...quote line here..."

3. The third rule is to avoid "it says". This is just a variation on the rule to avoid the word quote. For example, when quoting a research study, many students write: "In Smith & Smith (2004), it says..." Just tighten it up to: "Smith & Smith (2004) say..." Remember, when you quote a study, you are quoting the words of the authors of the study, so just use the attribution directly to the authors. But remember to match plural authors with plural verbs. Smith says... But Smith & Smith say... and Smith et al. say...

4. The fourth rule of using quotes effectively is to explain the relevance of the quote. Quotes should be interspersed with your analysis. You are only using the quote to show that your thinking is backed up by research. Each paragraph should have a big idea that you are discussing. Your introduction of a quote is only to show the depth of your knowledge. Alternating quotes and paraphrasing is good writing. You can introduce several big ideas by paraphrasing and then if there is a sentence that is really good, use it as a quote. In literary essays it is important to quote regularly to show the reader that your logic fits in with the original work being discussed. In social science essays, quote more sparingly, when the authors have made a point particularly well, but don't quote just to cite a fact. Never just throw a quote into a paragraph because you were told to use quotes. You might as well insert a note to the marker that says "I don't know what I am doing."

5. As always, ensure your citation forms are correct. Remember, the citation is part of the sentence, so the final punctuation comes after the citation. The Purdue University Writing Lab has the best on-line source for how to use MLA and APA formats. I turn to it regularly.

Updated April 2, 2014.