Quoting others’ work is crucial to your success as a writer.

Students often have difficulty with this skill; growing proficient at quoting will mark you as a sophisticated writer. Not quoting, or quoting awkwardly, is like showing up to a formal wedding dressed in cut-off jeans. Similarly, filling a short paper with many, many quotes (particularly long quotes) will interrupt your reader’s concentration on your ideas.

Why is it important to quote?

  • To credit the thinkers who have gone before you and debate them
  • To add credibility to your own work by associating with respected writers
  • To write concisely and powerfully (why paraphrase something that someone else has already stated beautifully?)
  • To demonstrate your research and citation skills

How many quotes should you use on a page?

You should check with your instructor, but a rule of thumb to avoid long quotes (more than 10 to 15 words) in papers under 5 pages in length. This means that a ‘regular’ English paper or report would not be filled with multi-line (block) quotations – often the strategy of a writer trying to pad his work to reach a specific word count.

You can gauge expectations for your course by looking at the kinds of readings you are doing. If the instructor assigns a lot of academic writing, filled with quotations and citations, then chances are you need to get your act together and follow suit. It’s usually okay to ask a teacher how many sources they expect you to use for a given assignment (if it isn’t already specified).

In general, a single page of typed, double-spaced text (250 words) might have four or five quotes spread evenly across the page.

What does a properly used quotation look like?

Here’s a typical problem encountered by students (the example is about the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s guitar player):

“[Music] was really an important thing for my life,” said Flea in a March, 2007 interview. “It gave me something to hold onto, and it was an important access for me. Without music I would’ve gotten into a lot of trouble.”  Judging by Flea’s childhood experiences, his venture into the punk scene seemed only natural.

This student has good instincts – they have properly framed the first quote (it came from an interview), and even inserted their own word (Music) to make the quote more concise. Note that they have not changed the spirit of the quote at all – obviously Flea would be talking about music.

The second sentence is all quote, which is okay – but dangerous. By this point, the quotes start to take over the essay – rather than the student being in control. And the quote doesn’t add that much to the point being made. While the second sentence is set up by the first one (we understand that the second sentence comes from the same interview), you want to avoid having other people’s words take over an entire sentence. Here’s a rewrite:

Flea has talked repeatedly about how important music has been in his life, and how “it gave [him] something to hold onto…without music I would’ve gotten into a lot of trouble.”

The rewrite compacts the two separate quotes into one sentence and drops the reference to a “2007 interview.” Odds are, the timing of the interview isn’t important to the analysis. The only things missing from our rewrite are a proper citation (where did the quote come from?) and analysis to tie it back to our thesis.


Learn More…

Learn more about integrating quotations into your writing.