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Guidelines for Quoting and Paraphrasing Sources in Your Writing

@ ProofreadingPal
May 29, 2018
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When I watch my kids interact, I am often reminded of a poster I saw in an elementary school classroom:

Before you say something, think:

Is it true?
Is it helpful?
Is it kind?

Good advice, right? Kid A sees Kid B in a messed-up shirt and thinks, “Her shirt looks stupid.” This may be true, it could be helpful, but it isn’t kind. Remembering the advice, Kid A thinks, I shouldn’t say that! But she’s going to a violin recital, and the shirt has mustard all over it. Let me make it more helpful and kind.

So, Kid A says, “Your shirt has mustard on it. You might want to change before the recital.” That’s effective communication.

(Although, thinking about it, my kids still just might think, Kid A sounds like a goody-two-shoes. I’d squirt mustard all over his shirt.)

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Nevertheless, this example gets at the heart of effective communication, whether speaking or writing. To be successful, the communicator must frequently and thoroughly reflect on delivery and intention.

This is crucial to a writing issue I have been mulling over lately: incorporating outside sources in your writing. I was editing a long research paper, and the author had included incredibly long quotations that would have been better if summarized, quotations that were punctuated incorrectly, and bold assertions that were not backed up with outside sources. This paper had a lot of potential, but it also made it clear how challenging it can be to effectively use outside sources.

If you’re writing on a topic in literature, medicine, engineering, history, or anything else academic, you need to use outside sources to support your ideas, and whether you get a solid A or you flop depends a lot on how effectively you use your sources.

So think about what kids should ask before they speak: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind?

Should I Include This Material?

Maybe you’re a writer whose prewriting involves careful note taking while conducting research followed by outlining your argument and using your notes to strengthen your argument. However, you might not be this type of organized, plan-ahead writer. (If you fall into the “search last minute for quotes to support your argument” camp, understand you are not alone, and it’s never too late to make a change.)

Regardless of how you work, before you use outside material into your paper, ask yourself:

  • Is it needed (i.e., It is true/relevant)?
  • Does it add to my topic (i.e., Is it helpful)?
  • Does it really support my ideas (i.e., It is kind)?

Don’t plop source material in willy-nilly because it sounds good, it interests you, your instructor told you to, or it will bulk up your word count. Consider your argument, and use your sources effectively to support it. If a quotation or other use of the source doesn’t add to what you’re saying (i.e., isn’t your friend), leave it out.

Should I Quote or Paraphrase?

When you write a paper, it should be comprised primarily of your own words, not other people’s words stitched together by a few of yours. So, once you’ve decided to include an outside source, you’ve got to make a thoughtful decision about whether it should be quoted or paraphrased

Consider using a quotation when

  • the style, wording, rhythm or rhyme, etc., of the original is important (common in a literary essay);
  • the original wording is particularly moving or persuasive;
  • the original shows support for your argument in a concise, effective manner; or
  • you plan to present a counterargument.

Consider paraphrasing or summarizing when

  • the wording of the material is not important;
  • the material is lengthy and you can say it in fewer words; or
  • the wording of the original is hard to fit into your writing smoothly without an overabundance of ellipses and bracketed material.

Can I Use This Source Another Way?

Sometimes a source is important not for a specific part but in its entirety, and the particulars of it need not be mentioned within your paper. If you are working with a source like this, you may want to refer to it generally. For example:

Several studies have shown that dogs prefer frequent, short walks over infrequent, longer walks (Jones, 2000; King & Zurgin, 1999; Smith, 2018).

Consider these three questions a guide to making decisions about what to include and how. See this past Proofreading Pulse post for more information about the differences between summarizing and paraphrasing. In a future post I’ll discuss the mechanics of properly quoting and paraphrasing sources.

Sarah P.

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