academic writing tips

Tips for Using Quotes in Academic Papers

Tips for Using Quotes in Writing From a History Teacher and Published Author

If you have taken a formal course in the humanities, chances are you’ve been given a writing assignment to evaluate text selections using quotes from the text. In today’s post, I’ll discuss the basics to help you (or your child) become more proficient in this critical skill.

1. Quotes to Support Your Point -— They Don’t Make It For You

We’ll start with probably the biggest mistake students make when quoting other writing, which is to rely entirely on a quote to make their argument. For example, if the assignment asks students to read a passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and then write about Lewis’s concept of Purgatory, using quotes from the book to support their hypothesis. Often, students will only use quotes from Lewis and nothing substantial of their own. Instead of using a quote to support their own argument, they are solely relying on the quote to make the argument.

Unless the teacher says otherwise, your writing must always be your own. Even if an assignment asks you to use a quote to justify your point, you still need to make your own point. The quote buttresses your argument; you utilize it as evidence that what you are saying is true. The quote itself cannot be your argument. For one thing, it is lazy writing. Furthermore, quotes themselves generally require an explanation for context; they require a commentary on what they mean and how you are using them.

Imagine a prosecutor in an important trial asked to prove that a defendant is guilty. The prosecutor smugly puts the murder weapon on the table, sits down, and says, “I rest my case.” We may imagine the incredulity of the judge. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” he might insist. Producing the murder weapon alone doesn’t make a case. The prosecutor must argue why the murder weapon is tied to the defendant and how it proves his guilt. Yet this is what happens when students rely solely on a quote to make their argument.

There is no hard and fast rule, but a good rule of thumb is that your essay should not have more than 25% quotes. If you include a quotation that is one sentence, your own writing should be at least three sentences. Do the reading and try your best to understand it. Come up with your own ideas about what you want to say and write it. Include the quote as a way of supporting what you are saying.

2. Specify Exactly Where the Quote Came From

When you use a quote in your writing, you have to state where the quote came from. This might seem intuitive, but for some students, it isn’t. If the assignment asks students to read Augustine’s City of God and use quotes from the text, it is common for students to introduce their quotes by simply writing: “Augustine says…” without any further reference to where Augustine said it or how to track the citation down.

Citing your quotes is important. Citing means telling your reader where you got the quote—exactly where you got it. If you are reading a book or magazine, this means the page number. Citing a website article means providing a URL, the date you pulled it, and the paragraph in which you found the quote. The point of doing this is so the reader can double-check your use of the quotation. Are you quoting accurately? Is the author really saying what you seem to imply he is saying? Are you using the quote in its proper context?

Citing the exact location of the quote allows your teacher to double-check these things. However, if you don’t explain where you got the quote, nobody can review your use of it. You essentially tell your reader, “Eh…take my word for it, Augustine said this.” While we may not have any reason to doubt your honesty, academic integrity requires that you cite your sources precisely so they can be reviewed for accuracy if needed.

3. Cite According to the Style Your Teacher Requires

It is crucial to cite accurately and according to the style your parent or teacher requires of you. A citation style is a set of guidelines for citing sources in your academic writing. There are various style guides available. The guide used will depend on several factors. For example, if you are writing for an English or humanities course, you will typically use the MLA Formatting and Style Guide. If you are writing for history or business, you may be instructed to use the Chicago Manual of Style. And if you are writing for the social sciences, you would likely use the APA Style Manual.

If you are writing on a Catholic topic, there are also Catholic style guides to help authors with issues such as how to quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church, how to capitalize liturgical, sacramental, & theological terms, and more. The USCCB’s style guide is provided free online and is typically used alongside the Chicago Manual of Style. Another Catholic style guide is the CNS Stylebook of Religion (Catholic News Service), which complements the AP Stylebook for journalists.

It is essential to familiarize yourself with these guides, find out how your instructor wants quotes cited, and carefully follow their instructions. Sometimes, your instructor will not require any style. They may require nothing more than a page number. Even so, ensure you always give credit and use the format the teacher requires.

4. Don’t Use Random Quotes — Do Ask For Help

Students who struggle with quotations will often pick any random quote from the text to include in their writing, even if it doesn’t make sense or does not support the student’s argument. They get muddled and think, “Well, I have to have a quote; any quote should do. I’ll try to pick something that sounds like what the teacher wants.”

Ninety-nine percent of the time, your teacher can tell when you are doing this. If you find yourself getting into this habit, you don’t have a problem with quotes so much as a problem with comprehension. That is, you are struggling to understand what the reading is communicating. Because you don’t understand what the reading is saying, you, in turn, have nothing to say about it. So, you end up focusing on just “giving the teacher what she wants.”

This is not an ideal situation for anybody. if you really don’t understand a reading or cannot locate relevant quotes, it’s time to ask your teacher for help. Teachers love it when students ask for guidance because it implies that they are exercising an effort to understand the material. So ask your teacher if you are dealing with this problem. I promise you most teachers would rather take the time to walk you through the assignment than have to read jibberish that was hastily cobbled together. Your teacher—whether it’s your parent or an online instructor—is your greatest asset. Have recourse to your teacher if you are confused.

Another thing to consider is if you can’t find quotes to support your argument, it may be that you are making a bad argument. If I am trying to make the argument that Napoleon Bonaparte was a man of great humility and sanctity, I am going to have a very hard time finding quotes to support that assertion. Even if I understand all the readings perfectly, my argument would simply be incorrect, and hence I would struggle to find any supporting quotes.

5. Remember, This Does Matter!

“Why do I have to learn all this? Isn’t this just nitpicking?” you might lament.

I understand! I felt the same when I was learning this academic skill. But it is good to remember that it does matter. It is the hallmark of an effective communicator to be able to incorporate source material into their writing. Quotations are like weapons in the grand arsenal of writing. The better you can wield them, the stronger you will be as a writer and as a communicator in general because you will have a solid handle on how to use other people’s thoughts to make your own case.

A College Success Story

There is also a practical benefit to this skill as well. College entry exams often use writing assignments as criteria for providing financial aid. I will close by sharing a letter I received from a former student who used the above advice to win a significant scholarship. She wrote:

In the fall I will be attending the University of Dallas. Because of my grades and test scores, I was invited to participate in a contest for a full tuition scholarship. After submitting an essay online, I was accepted to the second round, an in-person essay competition.

I took your medieval history class in 2020-2021 and through the essays you taught me a very important lesson. I wrote pretty decent essays in my estimation, but I failed to incorporate any quotes or historical anecdotes to back up my hypothesis. You pointed that out in your review of my essays, and I took your words to heart. After that I’ve always tried to use quotes from the original source whenever possible.

I went to UD back in February. The president of the university gave an hour-long talk on the virtue of friendship in a liberal arts education. During that time, I wrote copious notes, with special attention to the people he quoted. The next morning, I had an hour to write an essay on “the virtue of friendship in a liberal arts education,” using both the president’s talk and my prior knowledge. Before the essay began, I opened my packet (which contained the writing prompt) and found, to my great delight, a page devoted to the quotes the president had used. They were written out in their entirety, and freely given to me. There were four quotes, and I used several sentences from each in my essay.

After the hour was over, I visited with some of the other competitors, and I asked them if they too had been thrilled to find the page of quotes so freely available to us. They all said, “not really” and one flat told me that she “didn’t use any of the quotes because, after all, the president already knows what quotes he used. Why should I restate them?”

I knew from your classes that the best way to use a quote is to include it in your paper, not just keep it on the sidelines as a guide. I am thrilled to tell you that I won the full tuition scholarship. It is good for all four years, will cover any tuition increases over that time, I firmly believe that your guidance in clear and well-formulated essay writing helped me win my scholarship, and I am incredibly grateful.


A lot more could be written on the topic of writing academic papers, style guides, and proper citations. I’m sharing this information with you as a history teacher and published author. If you want to take your writing to the next level, Homeschool Connections has an excellent writing program: Aquinas Writing Advantage (AWA). In fact, AWA recently won first place in the i-Learn awards for online writing programs. I highly recommend it.

I also invite you to join me and other Catholic homeschooling parents at our Homeschool Connections Community or our Facebook group today.


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