Using Sources

Learning Objectives

  • Identify strategies for ethical use of sources in writing

College courses offer a few opportunities for writing that won’t require using outside resources.  Creative writing classes, applied lab classes, or field research classes will value what you create entirely from your own mind or from the work completed for the class. For most college writing, however, you will need to consult at least one outside source, and possibly more.

The following video provides a helpful overview of the ways in which sources are used most effectively and responsibly in academic writing.

You can view the transcript for “Using Sources” here (opens in new window).

Note that this video models MLA-style citations. This is one of several different styles you might be asked to practice within your classes.  Your instructors should make it clear which of the major styles they expect you to use in their courses: MLA (Modern Language Association), APA (American Psychological Association), Chicago, or another.

Regardless of the style, the same principles are true any time a source is used: give credit to the source when it is used in the writing itself, as well as in a bibliography (or Works Cited page, or References page) at the end.

Using Sources Creatively

When writing papers that require the use of outside source material, it is often tempting to cite only direct quotations from your sources. If, however, this is the only method of citation you choose, your paper will become nothing more than a series of quotations linked together by a few connecting words. Your paper will seem to be a collection of others’ thoughts and will contain little thinking on your part.

To avoid falling into this trap, follow a few simple pointers:

  • Avoid using long quotations merely as space-fillers. While this is an attractive option when faced with a ten-page paper, the overuse of long quotations gives the reader the impression you cannot think for yourself.
  • Don’t use only direct quotations. Try using paraphrases in addition to your direct quotations. To the reader, the effective use of paraphrases indicates that you took the time to think about the meaning behind the quote’s words. (For further assistance see our materials on “Using Paraphrases.”)
  • When introducing direct quotations, try to use a variety of verbs in your signal phrases. Don’t always rely on stock verbs such as “states” or “says.” Think for a little while about the purpose of your quotation and then choose a context-appropriate verb.

Also, when using direct quotations try qualifying them in a novel or interesting manner. Depending on the system of documentation you’re using, the signal phrases don’t always have to introduce the quotation.

For example, instead of saying:

“None of them knew the color of the sky” is the opening line of Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat” (339). This implies the idea that “all sense of certainty” in the lives of these men is gone (Wolford 18).

Try saying:

“None of them knew the color of the sky,” the opening line of Stephen Crane’s, “The Open Boat,” implies that “all sense of certainty” in the lives of these men is gone (Crane 339; Wolford 18).

The combination of these two sentences into one is something different. It shows thought on the writer’s part in how to combine direct quotations in an interesting manner.

How to Construct a Summary

Summarizing involves condensing the main idea of a source into a much shorter overview. A summary outlines a source’s most important points and general position. When summarizing a source, it is still necessary to use a citation to give credit to the original author.

  • Decide what part of the source is most relevant to your argument.
  • Pick out the most important sentences in that part of the source. In most cases, you’ll focus on the main points.
  • Paraphrase those sentences. If they include any important or memorable phrases, quote those in your paraphrases. List the paraphrased sentences in the order they occur in the original.
  • Add any other information that readers might need to understand how your paraphrased sentences connect to one another.
  • Revise the list so that it reads not like a list but like a paragraph.

How to Mix Quotation With Summary

A long summary can make readers feel that you and they are too distant from an important source. So when you write a summary as long as half a page, look for memorable phrases that you can quote within your summary.

Colomb and Williams emphasize that drafting is “an act of discovery” that can fuel a writer’s creative thinking. They acknowledge that some writers have to draft carefully and stick closely to their outlines, but they advise writers to draft as freely and as openly as they can. They encourage even slow and careful drafters to be open to new ideas and surprises and not to be limited by what they do before drafting. They still stress the value of steady work that follows a plan: for example, writing a little bit every day rather than all at once “in a fit of desperate inspiration.” But they show writers how to make the best of a plan while hoping that you will “discover what your storyboard has missed.”[1]

When you add a few quotations to your summary, you seem a more lively writer. You give readers an idea of your source without quoting so much that your paper seems a cut-and-paste job. If you have pages that are mostly summary and paraphrase, add a few notable quotations that will liven up your writing.


Quoting is when one uses the EXACT wording of the source material. Direct quotations should be used sparingly, and should be used to strengthen your own arguments and ideas.

When Should One Quote? One should use quotes infrequently and only with good reason! Some valid reasons for quoting include:

  • When not using the author’s exact wording would change the original meaning
  • To lend authority to the point you are trying to make
  • When the language of the quote is significant

Quotations should always be introduced and incorporated into your argument, rather than dropped into your paper without context. Consider this first BAD example:

There are many positive effects for advertising prescription drugs on television. “African-American physicians regard direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines as one way to educate minority patients about needed treatment and healthcare options” (Wechsler).
This is a potentially good piece of information to support a research writer’s claim, but the researcher hasn’t done any of the necessary work to explain where this quote comes from or to explain why it is important for supporting her point. Rather, she has simply “dropped in” the quote, leaving the interpretation of its significance up to the reader. Now consider this revised GOOD example of how this quote might be better introduced into the essay:
In her Pharmaceutical Executive article available through the Wilson Select Internet database, Jill Wechsler writes about one of the positive effects of advertising prescription drugs on television. “African-American physicians regard direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription medicines as one way to educate minority patients about needed treatment and healthcare options.”
In this revision, it’s much more clear what point the writer is trying to make with this evidence and where this evidence comes from.


Paraphrasing is when you create your own wording of essential information and ideas expressed by someone else without directly quoting. Paraphrasing is similar to summarizing, however summaries only include the essential ideas of a work, while paraphrasing includes more details. Since your paper should only use direct quotations sparingly, you’ll probably be paraphrasing frequently. Just remember that you still need to express plenty of your own ideas. Use paraphrasing to support those ideas, and be mindful that you still need to cite paraphrased portions of your paper.

Providing Context for Your Sources

Whether you use a direct quotation, a summary, or a paraphrase, it is important to distinguish the original source from your ideas, and to explain how the cited source fits into your argument. You can think of the context for your quote, paraphrase, or summary as a sandwich with multiple parts. You’ll want to: transition into and introduce the source, use a signal phrase to actually move into the material from the source, provide a citation that can be easily connected to the full citation material in your bibliography or works cited list, and explain how this material fits into your argument. Many writing textbooks refer to this as a quotation sandwich, but it can and should also be used to integrate paraphrases and summaries. All material from sources that you use in your own work must be integrated in this way, or you risk readers becoming confused about its importance and purpose.

picture showing pieces stacked like a sandwich. The pieces, from top to bottom, read: transition and introduction, signal phrase, quotation/paraphrase/summary, citation, explanation of the material's relevance to your argument.


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  1. Kate L. Turabian. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Seventh Edition : Chicago Style for Students and Researchers. Revised by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff. (University of Chicago Press, 2007), 83–7.