Citations: Efficient In-text Quotations

When writing a paper in MLA style, prefer brief quotations from your sources, in order to emphasize how the complex connections between the sources support your original argument.

Bad ExampleIn the essay “The Full Title of an Essay Fills Lots of Space” by Maxwell Wordsworth Filler, it talks about how easy it is to bury your own thoughts when you introduce quotes in inefficient ways. In a passage on page 128, Filler writes, “Keep in mind that your instructor wants to evaluate your own thoughts, not your ability to quote somebody else’s thoughts. Quote just the juiciest, most meaning-laden passages from your sources, and use the brief MLA style parenthetic citation, rather than spelling out the full title and the full name of your source.” As you can see, this quote shows the importance of citing your sources efficiently.
The author of the passage above has managed to churn out about 110 words, but where do you see any evidence of original thought? Room for original ideas gets squeezed by a wordy formula that includes

  • the full name of the source
  • the full name of the author
  • a stand-alone introduction (a complete sentence that introduces a general topic)
  • a long quote (a full sentence or more), and
  • an explanation of the quote (pointing out its connection to the general topic);

Note also, these phrases that call too much attention to the mechanics of reading, interpreting, and writing:

  • “In X, it talks about…”
  • “This quote shows…”
  • “As you can see…”

When I see phrases like these, that awkwardly highlight the mechanics of doing your homework (“I think/believe/feel…” or “If I had to pick one character who most represents the conflict between civilization and nature, I would have to choose…”), I imagine a dancer who is making all the right steps, but distracting from the aesthetics of her performance by muttering “one, two, back-step, four, reverse, two, three, kick.”

The really polished dancers won’t need to count out loud in order to stay in step. Likewise, becoming a polished writer means knowing what to hide (the machinery that helps you present your ideas) and what to emphasize (the ideas themselves).

Good ExampleCiting your sources in proper MLA style can help you focus tightly on making an argument.  Because “your instructor wants to evaluate your own thoughts,” you can “quote just the juiciest, most meaning-laden passages from your sources” (Fuller 128).  Efficient citations will let you “spread your intellectual wings a little wider” (Jones 213), because you’ll have more room to make “the kind of connections your instructor expects to see in successful academic writing” (Lee 43). While learning the details of MLA style may feel like a pain, the space it saves gives you room to demonstrate your true strengths as a writer.
Using fewer words (102), the revision introduces brief quotes from three different sources, not just to summarize or fill space, but to make an original claim (about the benefits of MLA’s citation stile).  Even though the author’s claim draws on those sources, the author’s point cannot be found, in its full form, in any one source; therefore, this revision highlights the author’s ability to draw connections between sources, in order to support an original argument. The second passage uses sources to support an argument, while the first passage simply cites sources mechanically, as part of a formula that produces a lot of words.

Update: Added Kanye meme 23 Dec 2016

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