The hallmark of a well-written academic essay is the inclusion of credible sources and supporting evidence. It’s one thing to inform or persuade your readers with your own observations and thoughts. It’s another thing to back up your ideas with statements from respected authorities. This strengthens your argument.
Once you can bolster your work with the words of someone with proven knowledge, you’ll be well on your way to a solid essay. But what’s the best way to include that knowledge in your essay? Below, we’ll discuss when to quote, paraphrase, or summarize someone else’s work.
Quotation marks are reserved for lines of text that are identical to an original piece of writing. Anything inside quotation marks must match the original text, word for word, and be attributed to the original author.
You never want to pack an academic essay with too many quotes because they’re not expressing your ideas, but someone else’s. For example:
Steven Tyler is a changed man. He’s gone from bad boy to America’s Sweetheart. According to Brian Hiatt’s article in Rolling Stone, “He’s in a manic, mystical state of awe and gratitude these days, practically vibrating with sweet emotion – hence the unflagging positivity he exudes.”
If you’re thinking about when to quote someone in your writing, keep these key scenarios in mind:
- When you need to maintain accuracy or highlight the specific words of the original author
- When a statement will seem more convincing coming directly from the source
- When an important phrase would be lost in a paraphrase
If you’re only going to quote two or three sentences, you can include them within your current paragraph. Here’s an example of a paragraph from an academic essay on punctuation. It contains a short quotation:
For non-native English speakers, learning to punctuate properly can be quite trying. Professor Kittelstad writes, “When joining two independent clauses together, you’ll want to consider a semicolon if the ideas are related or a period to demonstrate a full stop.” (Kittelstad, p. 92) All these fine details may seem overwhelming at first. However, the payoff in the end is a gift. Writing with precision is a skill that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
If you’d like to quote a larger piece of the original writer’s work, then you’ll want to move into block quotes. A good rule of thumb is that anything over four sentences should be moved into a block quote. Your teacher’s style guide will indicate how to use block quotes but, generally speaking, they’re indented an inch and do not require quotation marks. Here’s an example:
Commas, semicolons, and periods are often interchanged in error. Commas are used to indicate a slight pause. They’re best suited between a dependent and an independent clause. When joining two independent clauses together, you’ll want to consider a semicolon if the ideas are related or a period to demonstrate a full stop. (Kittelstad, p. 92)
When we paraphrase, we’re taking a large section of someone else’s writing and conveying the main message in our own words. We’re restating something that’s already been written - but in our own words - while still maintaining the original idea. Here’s an example:
According to Professor Kittelstad, there’s a difference between commas and semicolons. Commas should be used between a dependent and an independent clause. Meanwhile, semicolons should be used between two independent clauses.
Notice how this paraphrase was immediately attributed to the original author. It’s very important to cite the original source in order to avoid any instances of plagiarism.
Paraphrasing will allow you to maintain your own writing style and voice while sharing important points from a credible source in the field. In doing so, you’re using your own intellect and understanding to share an important thought. Paraphrases tend to be around the same length as the original text and are, sometimes, easier to read.
If you’re thinking about paraphrasing a piece of text, these are the most common considerations:
- When you need to maintain your own voice while sharing important points from a source
- When the exact verbiage of the entire original text isn’t as important as the main idea you’re trying to convey
- When you want to demonstrate your own intellect and understanding
In a summary, we’re putting the main points from someone else’s text into our own words. Summarizing will condense the text and speak in generalities so that the reader can easily understand.
The key difference between a summary and a paraphrase is that a paraphrase doesn’t have to shorten the text (although it usually does). A summary, however, is mainly intended to abbreviate a larger piece of text. Even though you’re not copying someone else’s writing word for word, it’s still important to cite the original source and avoid any of these examples of plagiarism. Here’s an example:
In Professor Kittelstad’s textbook, The Art of the Comma, we learn semicolons can separate entire sentences while commas cannot.
This summary is even more clipped than the paraphrase above. It doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty and use big terms like “dependent clause” and “independent clause.” A summary will strive to get “straight to the point” in as few words as possible.
Common situations where summarizing text would be beneficial include:
- When you need to relay the main idea from someone else’s writing.
- When you need to condense the text and speak in a more general sense.
- When you want to omit certain information while highlighting other facts.
Whether it’s a simple, “According to Professor Kittelstad,” or a citation within parentheses, it’s important to cite your sources every time you’re referencing someone else’s work. This is definitely one of those cases where it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you’re struggling to find sources to back up your ideas, check out How to Find Credible Sources.
Once you have some great sources in mind, it’s time to get to the business of following your teacher’s preferred style guide. This will tell you where to punctuate around your quoted sources and more. To get you started, here are some APA format examples, Chicago Manual of Style examples, and MLA format examples.
To make sure you’re fully covered and free from any instances of plagiarism, it’s always wise to tack on a works cited page at the end of any piece of writing where you quoted, paraphrased, or summarized someone else’s work. Like in-text citations, your works cited page will differ, depending on your style guide. Still, it’s the best way to make sure you’ve covered all your tracks.
Quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing are nice ways to pay someone else’s ideas forward. If you’ve read something that’s pertinent to your current research topic, use it in your next essay. Any time you can substantiate your ideas with someone else’s well-researched findings, it’ll bolster the case you’re trying to make.
Of course, you want to rely on your own ideas first and avoid the temptation to clutter an essay with quotes. But, once you strike the right balance, you’ll have a beautifully written piece. On that note, here’s everything you need to know about how to write an essay.