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Essay Writing: Taking Charge of Your Quotes

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You’ve completed your research for an assigned essay. You’ve found many effective quotes from your research sources, you’ve used these quotes throughout your essay, and each one of them supports your thesis.  You’ve learned how to cite them, both in-text and in your bibliography.  You hand in your paper with confidence, knowing that you’ve avoided plagiarism, made each quotation count, and taken great pains to cite each source fully and correctly.

But when your draft comes back to you, many points have been taken off because you haven’t “contextualized your quotes.” What does this mean? 

What it means is this: You’ve let your quoted material stand by itself, under the assumption that your readers will immediately understand how each quote connects to your thesis—as well as what each quote actually means.  In paragraph after paragraph, you’ve strung out these quotes, letting them do the heavy lifting for you.  In effect, you’ve allowed your quotes—your sources—to overwhelm your essay, so that you, the writer, are practically absent.  Your paper seems written, not by you, but by a committee: 

The basset hound was bred for tracking prey. “The Basset's skull is characterised by its large Dolichocephalic nose, which is second only to the Bloodhound in scenting ability and number of olfactory receptor cells (“Basset hound,” n.d.). “The long ears of the basset sweep through grass and fallen leaves, keeping the scent of the prey in front of the nose” (Smith, 2010).  According to Jones (2013), “The basset’s short stature makes it ideal for the sedate hunter on foot” (p. 21).

Note that only the first sentence is written by the essayist.  Aside from the cluttered appearance of all these quotes strung together, note too that it is left up to the reader to figure out how each quoted sentence relates to the topic sentence of the paragraph.  Now compare:

The basset hound was bred for tracking prey.  Its comical appearance—low-slung, with long shiny ears and an outsize head—makes perfect sense in light of its intended purpose, which was to assist hunters who are not on horseback.  First, while all dogs have keen olfactory senses, the basset’s abilities are outstanding. This is made possible by the design of its skull and nose: “The Basset's skull is characterised by its large Dolichocephalic nose, which is second only to the Bloodhound in scenting ability and number of olfactory receptor cells (“Basset hound,” n.d.).  In addition, the basset has been bred so that this excellent nose focuses easily on the task at hand. “The long ears of the basset sweep through grass and fallen leaves, keeping the scent of the prey in front of the nose” (Smith, 2010). The third most obvious physical trait of this breed is its short, sturdy legs. According to Jones (2013), “The basset’s short stature makes it ideal for the sedate hunter on foot, allowing it to plod in front without fuss, underneath brambles and through dense thickets” (p. 21).  Every aspect of this strikingly designed breed has a hunt-related function.

In this paragraph, the writer has taken charge of her source material.  Each quoted passage is preceded by at least one sentence which places it in a larger context—the context of the paragraph’s topic.  Between each quote is an observation by the writer of the essay, showing the reader how it connects to the next point (and quote).  The paragraph ends with a sentence summing up both the main points made in the paragraph and the essence of the quotes used in the service of making those points. 

When quotes are used this way, to support the claims the writer is making, they don’t clutter up the essay, nor do they puzzle the reader, who sees, instantly and easily, that the writer of the essay is in command of all her research material and has used and ordered it, quoted and paraphrased from it, in accordance with her own thesis: her own purpose in writing the essay. 

So:  By all means quote from sources, but never let the quotes stand on their own.  Introduce them; connect them; place them in the larger context of your own essay.  After all, you’re not simply linking all this material: you’re using it to advance your own arguments and ideas.

 

Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services

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