Seven: Picking Good Quotes

In Lesson Five: Summarizing & Paraphasing, we learned a little bit about why it’s important to understand how to effectively join the “critical conversation” of other writers.

The final two lessons of Developmental Writing will take that discussion further and illustrate the process of citing sources and smoothly incorporating them into your own writing.

Your Developmental Writing class may or may not cover citing sources. It depends on the standard curriculum used at your university. But whether or not it’s on the syllabus for this semester doesn’t really matter because you will absolutely need to master this skill in order to succeed in future college classes and to grow as a writer.

Every paper you write in college will require you to cite sources and use quotes to support your argument. Heck, being able to effectively use quotations will benefit you long after your university studies end.

Learning to reference sources is part of understanding the world around us. It’s the key to learning how to assert our ideas and insert our opinions into daily conversation. I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that this skill will vastly improve your ability communicate in all mediums.

Citing Sources: How Many Quotes Should I Use?

Beginning writers often struggle with the question of where and how often to place quotations in a paper. If only I had a nickel for every time a student asked how many quotes they needed to cite.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that question. I know, I know. It would be so easy if I would just say “Use one quote for every paragraph” or “Two quotes per page.” But it’s just not that simple.

I suppose your teacher might decree an arbitrary quote count as a guideline to follow, but that number would be pulled out of thin air. Every paper is different and there is no definitive rule on how many quotes to use. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

That being said, it’s certainly possible to overuse quotations. There is a fine line to walk between citing sources to support your argument and using those sources to make your argument. The paper needs to be primarily your own unique thoughts, and then your sources will function only as occasional supporting points for those thoughts.

Okay, here’s a number I’m going to make up. And I was a writing professor, so it must be true:

The content of your paper should never be more than 25% quotations from others.

There. I just gave you a concrete guideline. You’re welcome.

Citing Sources: What Makes a Good Quote?

The second important step to properly cited sources involves developing an eye for picking good quotations. It doesn’t matter how smoothly you’ve integrated outside sources if those sources are not relevant to your argument.

And this is exactly why I devoted an entire lesson to taking good notes. It might seem like taking notes has little to do with writing papers, but when it comes to citing sources, a well-organized system for taking notes will come in handy.

Good notes help triage the information gleaned from supporting sources. Ideally, when it comes time to integrate sources into the paper, you can simply return to your notes and pick out the quotes that best fit your argument.

I recommend first writing a rough draft of the paper with your own ideas. Once you have your thoughts on the page, return to the notes you took on your sources and identify the quotes that are most relevant.

If you took notes according to the plan I laid out in Lesson Four, then you will have all of your key quotes written out on your notepad with the page number next to each. Then, all you have to do is identify the spot in your paper to place the quote and include a citation. All of this will be ready to go because of the pre-writing strategy you implemented prior to beginning the paper.

When you finish this part of the writing process, you should have a rough draft of your argument with all of your key points elucidated. And, somewhere in the vicinity of those key points, you will have quotes from experts plugged in to help support them.

While citing sources is important, it isn’t enough to simply add quotes to the paper. You also need to smoothly incorporate them into your argument so they make sense within the context they’re placed. We’ll cover that in the final lesson on Signal Phrases and Smooth Connections.

Also, feel free to check out our Resources page to find helpful guides and tips for students and teachers of Developmental Writing.