Using Citations Without Fear: Best Practices

March 31, 2018

In a college or university essay, you need to make sure that you cite ideas properly. Here’s how.


Though the vast majority of your essay should be in your own words, it is important to use selective quotations from outside sources to express important points of view or important ideas that the original source says exceptionally well. Quotations should make up less than 25 percent of your essay, and they should be used sparingly, only when it is important that your readers hear the source’s point of view in the source’s own words.


Whenever you borrow the exact language of an outside source, you must indicate that these are not your own words. You do this through the use of “quotation marks” or by setting longer quotations in an indented paragraph called a “block quote.” If you fail to do this, you have committed plagiarism, even if you have provided a citation. The reason this is still plagiarism is that even with a citation the reader has no way of knowing if this is a summary, a paraphrase, or a quotation. The reader needs to know whether these are your own words or the words of another.


The place where most writers get into trouble is paraphrasing. Many writers believe that a paraphrase involves nothing more than changing a few words or moving around some phrases in a passage. This is not true, and if you do this it is plagiarism, even if you supply a citation. Paraphrasing involves completely rewriting the source’s ideas in your own words. Do not make use of the same phrases or even the same sentence structure.