Essay Writing 101

We may be living in a material world, but academics live in a citation nation. Proper citation is one of the most important and most often overlooked aspects of an essay, and can affect not only your final grade, but your academic future. Taking the extra time to make sure everything is cited properly is always worth it, and tools like Refworks make doing it easy. This isn’t a post on how to cite things, though I’ll include some links to style guides. It’s about why it’s important to cite things properly, and how you can make it easier. 

First, your teachers will check your references. Not all of them and not all the time, but if you include something that may not be a well-known fact, which will most often be something that your argument turns on, they’ll check. If it’s improperly cited, prepare to lose some marks not just because of the citation, but because you’re resting a point on something that is improperly sourced. Best case scenario, it’s hard to find but they manage with a bit of digging. There’s a limit to how much digging will happen, though. Your prof or TA has forty to eighty papers to grade, which is already a time-consuming effort. Worst case scenario, that point becomes wobbly and your argument collapses underneath it. The deductions from this can cut out from that five percent for citation and head straight into the thirty percent that’s argumentation. You can save yourself from this by taking the time to make sure everything is cited properly.

Footnotes done right
Footnotes done right. Credit: flickr/Erik Mallinson

Also, consistency is a beautiful thing. If everything is cited properly, your marker will notice and appreciate it. If there’s a mishmash of styles, it will throw off the rhythm of your paper. You want them to focus on your writing, not stop and wonder about why you’re using bracketed citations in text when before you were using footnotes. This also means that you should make sure to use the appropriate style for the discipline you’re writing for. Classical and medieval studies tend to use Chicago style, while psychology uses APA, and English uses MLA. When in doubt, ask your professor, because ultimately it’s their expectations that matter.

The trick to having consistent and clean citations is just to cite everything you read. Any paper or book that I consult, I make sure I have a citation for. If I don’t use it, I can always delete it, but if I want to use it later, it’s a pain to go back and look for it. Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. If you get into the habit of this, not only will your bibliographies get more robust, but your research will become more efficient.

The question I’m asked most often about citation is “What should I cite?” After all, some of your ideas are original, but they might be rooted in things you heard in class, read years ago, or just discussed with classmates. My usual answer is, “If there’s someone you could credit for it, then you credit them.” That goes for ideas and quotes taken from books, but also for lectures and even conversations if the content is relevant enough. A lot of people have the worry that their paper starts to look like they have no original ideas, but this is okay. What you’re showing is that your ideas exist in the context of a larger scholarship. Odds are good that if you can think about it, someone smarter than you has had the same thought. Cite their ideas and show how you’re adapting them, or even why they’re wrong. But cite their ideas, because it grounds your paper in the foundation of the discipline.

A quick note about plagiarism. It’s a real thing. People try it all the time, and they do get caught. When your paper is in a stack of forty that tend to follow a pattern, a plagiarized paper stands out like a sore thumb. There’s also software, like TurnItIn, which makes it incredibly easy to catch people. Don’t do it. The last thing you want is to wind up in Bill Chesney’s office with something to explain. Improper citations aren’t plagiarism, but a lack of them can be. Don’t appropriate other people’s ideas. They deserve the credit, even if it’s in a paper that nobody else will read.

Jim Tigwell, “Citation Nation,”  Labyrinth. December 4th, 2012.

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