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Lecture: Working With Sources

"One must be a wise reader to quote wisely and well." 
—A. Bronson Alcott, Table Talk (1877)

"When I quote others I do so in order to express my own ideas more clearly." 
—Michel de Montaigne, “Of the Education of Children” (1595)

Knowing how to work with sources is an essential skill in many college courses. In an English course, you may be asked to analyze a work of literature, such as The Great Gatsby, in which case, you would be working with quotations and paraphrased text from the novel and, possibly, outside biographies and works of criticism as well. In a history class you may be asked to write an essay about an important historical event, for example, the events leading up to U.S. involvement in the Second World War; in which case, you would need to back up your own conclusions with the work of respected scholars. In an environmental biology class, you may need to write a paper on an environmental problem, such as the causes for the decline of the salmon population. In this assignment, you would likely need to back up your analysis of the problem with the research findings of environmental biologists.

To write successful analytical essays and research papers, students need to learn to work with quotes, paraphrase, and summary effectively. In this lesson, you will learn the skills and strategies necessary for effective incorporation of sources into your own work.


In this lesson, you will learn to

  • introduce quotes
  • correctly incorporate quotes into your own work
  • comment on quotes
  • correctly incorporate paraphrased material into your own work
  • correctly incorporate summaries of source material into your own work

Direct Quotes

In a direct quote, a writer uses the exact words of another person while clearly acknowledging that the words belong to that other person. A direct quote is identified by quotation marks at the beginning and at the end of the quoted material or by off-setting the quote from the main text in a "block quote" (always use a block when the quoted material is equivalent to 4 or more lines in your own text).

Why use a direct quote? Writers use direct quotes for several reasons:

1) To back up a point by citing an authority on the subject.


Back then, public and private life were not as separate as they are today, and custom required households to produce the signs of being part of that public, social order in their own domestic space in the form of hospitality. As Rhyss Isaac says in his wonderful history of Virginia in the 18th century, The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790, "most of the dominant values of the culture were fused together in the display of hospitality, which was one of the supreme obligations that society laid upon heads of households." The ability of families to produce this display determined their moral and social status in the community.

2) To offer evidence for a claim


In this moment Margaret sees what makes Howards End wonderful: it is human in scale—unlike London where one might be swept away in the tide of progress or the press of humanity—and it also protects, like a kindly parent: "The phantom of bigness, which London encourages, was laid for ever when she paced from the hall at Howards End to its kitchen and heard the rains run this way and that where the watershed of the roof divided them." (194)

3) To call attention to particularly beautiful, concise, or insightful language about a subject and deepen one's own discussion.


Howards End is a novel that is primarily about the longing for home. In her essay on setting in fiction, Eudora Welty says, “Location is the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief and moral conviction that charge out from the story in its course.” The home at Howards End is Forster’s conductor.

Introducing Quotes

It is all well and good to insert a quote into your essay, but if you do not provide a clear transition into the quote and a thoughtful explanation of the significance of that quote in terms of your argument, the reader will end up extremely frustrated. It is a big mistake to assume that the quote will simply speak for itself. Certainly, if the reader spends time wondering about the connection, a connection will probably appear; however, the reader should not have to do this work; introducing and explaining the significance of a quote is the writer's responsibility. Look at the difference in the way the following quotes are introduced:

Unfortunately, there is new evidence that suggests the possibility that cell phones cause brain tumors. A recent study reveals that “users who spend more than an hour a day talking on a mobile phone have a close to one-third higher risk of developing a rare form of brain tumor,” usually on the same side they hold the cell phone to their ear (Dr. Mercola).

To be safe, it is best to join in and become one of the "bud people" as this eliminates the need to hold the cell phone to the head: “A new species, infrequently sighted but growing in number, the Bud People keep their phones hidden and have small earphones and tiny microphone” (Guernsey).

The second quote is not introduced, and so it is more difficult for the reader to know what to do with the quoted material. The writer puts the burden of communication on the reader, who must pause and figure out how the quote connects to the idea being developed in the paragraph.

Common signal phrases for introducing quotes:

There are many signal words that can declare the relationship between a quote and the author's argument. Several of these words are listed below:




points out




Note: Avoid beginning with statements like "As this quotation shows" and "As can be seen in this quote" to begin an explanation. These phrases actually detract from your argument. Just jump right in and focus on the meaningful words in the quote. Also, always begin an explanation of a block quote flush with the left margin. Since you are continuing to discuss the quote, you are not beginning a new topic and, therefore, should not begin a new paragraph.

Integrating a quote into your own sentence:

A quote can also be integrated directly into the structure of one's own sentence as long as the sentence is grammatically correct. For example,

From a distance, seen from the green landscape of the surrounding countryside, Coketown is only a “black mist.” More precisely, Dickens describes Coketown seen from afar as a town “shrouded in a haze of its own . . . impervious to the sun’s rays; a dense formless jumble of smoke with sheets of cross light in it that show . . nothing but masses of darkness”— an ominous prelude (85).

In particular, you will need to make sure that verb tenses are consistent if you incorporate a quote into the structure of your own sentence. Use brackets around any words in the quote that you change:

Life in Coketown is dominated by simple truths: “everything [is] severely workful,” “a triumph of fact.”

Commenting on Quotes

Making the significance of a quote clear to your reader is perhaps the most important part of working with quotes. Without this explanation, the reader will not know what to do with the quote, and as mentioned earlier, will feel frustrated with the writer for making the reader do the work of figuring out why the quote is important.


As a general rule, one should paraphrase rather than quote a text unless the language is particularly succinct or beautiful, or the words themselves carry significant meaning. Yet, good paraphrase is an art form. One must capture the essence of an author's meaning without borrowing the author's language. Below is an example of a correct paraphrase of an author's work followed by an incorrect paraphrase. The original passage from E. M. Foster's novel, Howards End is presented first:

“I do pity you from the bottom of my heart. To be parted from your house, your father's house—it oughtn't to be allowed. It is worse than dying” (Chapter 10).

Correct Paraphrase:

Ruth Wilcox is horrified at the thought that Margaret is to be cast out of her home. For Ruth, one's home is a part of one's own self.

Plagiarism in a Paraphrase:

Ruth Wilcox pities Margaret from the bottom of her heart, believing that being evicted from one's home is worse than dying.

The second example includes plagiarized text. Several words from the original text are used (or are very closely echoed) without acknowledgement.

Note: To avoid plagiarism, write your paraphrase without looking at the original text. Try to think of what the original text really expresses and attempt to capture that expression in your own words. 


Sometimes, as part of one's own argument, it is useful to summarize a writer's work. For example, in an essay about the alarming decline in the salmon population, a writer might find it useful to summarize the theories for this decline of various scientists, or in an essay on the culture of African slaves on southern plantations, a writer might summarize an archaeologist's findings at the slave quarters of a Southern plantation. The key to an effective summary is in emphasizing details that are important to your argument without distorting the original text.

Take a look at the following example of a summary used as evidence. In this essay on the nature of home in today's culture, the writer (me, actually) discusses what home meant in other times, and she uses summary of a section of Rhyss Isaac's book, The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790, to support her argument:

According to Isaac, Virginians in the mid-eighteenth century did not think of home as the safe, comfortable hideaway from public life that we expect it to be today. Instead, for these Virginians, one of the primary functions of the home was to represent the self to others in and outside of their own social group. In other words, public and private life were not as separate as they are today, and custom required households to produce the signs of being part of that public, social order in their own domestic space in the form of hospitality. As Isaac says, "most of the dominant values of the culture were fused together in the display of hospitality, which was one of the supreme obligations that society laid upon heads of households" (427). The ability of families to produce this display determined their moral and social status in the community.

With the sentence, "In other words, public and private life were not as separate as they are today . . . " the writer shows the reader how Isaac's argument about hospitality in the 18th century is useful in understanding what home is like today.




A writer expresses himself in words that have been used before because they give his meaning better than he can give it himself, or because they are beautiful or witty, or because he expects them to touch a cord of association in his reader, or because he wishes to show that he is learned and well read. Quotations due to the last motive are invariably ill-advised; the discerning reader detects it and is contemptuous; the undiscerning is perhaps impressed, but even then is at the same time repelled, pretentious quotations being the surest road to tedium.

—Henry W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926)