Most of these examples had fairly obvious answers, because in our lives, we constantly make decisions about what information is needed for a particular audience and purpose. In academic writing also, if you keep in mind your purpose in using the information, it becomes easier to know which information from a source to include, and whether you need their exact words or not. Knowing what you think about the following questions will help you choose how much and what kind of information from sources to use.
Decide how to use information
These are some essential questions to ask yourself at the start of your paper; articulating the answers to these questions will also make it easier to figure out how to use information from sources:
- Who is your audience? What do they care about? What do they probably know already, and what do you think would be helpful for them to learn?
- Research writing is not just communicating information but also communicating about a conversation that is happening. You aren’t only telling your audience what you personally think; you’re explaining what the conversation is, and then adding your own voice to the conversation. In writing your paper, which conversation are you joining?
- What is your purpose in joining this conversation? What arguments or knowledge do you want to promote or spread, and why?
When writing a paper, there are many times when you need to decide whether to quote (using the exact words of a source in quotation marks), paraphrase (putting information or ideas into your own words), or summarize (mentioning only the key points instead of all of the information, and putting the ideas or information into your own words).
Different communities have different standards for when to use quotations, but in many academic situations, you should only use quotes when there is a reason that the exact words are needed.
When to use an exact quote
Some reasons you might need to quote the exact words of a source:
- For technical accuracy or precision. If you are referring to scientific findings or on a topic where the terminology must be repeated precisely, then paraphrasing might hurt the clarity or accuracy of your explanation.
- To analyze the language used. If you are analyzing the way language is used in a source, you will need to use specific examples to make your arguments. Analyzing language use might be valuable in the study of literature, history, advertising, marketing, journalism, rhetoric, communication, and many other fields.
- For emotional or other rhetorical effects. Sometimes, a source expresses a thought so well or so famously that changing the wording greatly diminishing the meaning. If the quote is particularly famous, and the audience would likely recognize it, such as in the John F. Kennedy example in the questions above, exact words are appropriate. Likewise, if the words are very moving or rhetorically powerful, or if the quote is humorous and changing the words would take away from the humor, then exact quotations can be helpful. This reason to use a quote should only be used when it is clear something unique is taken away when you change the exact words, and not just because you are worried that your paraphrasing won’t be quite as good as the original.
- For visuals: Using a picture, chart, or other graphic from a source is also a kind of quotation – you are using the exact communication found in a source. It is vital to cite all pictures, figures, charts, graphs, etc.; if you don’t cite, you are saying that you created this picture/graph/etc.
Obviously, however, there are times when it is better to paraphrase or summarize rather than use the exact words of the quote. For example, when explaining why someone can’t attend a party, most people would summarize or paraphrase rather than quote, unless there were a reason that the exact words were necessary.
Another key question is: what does it mean to paraphrase “properly” for a paper? What does it mean to put information or ideas completely into your own words? These websites have good information about how to paraphrase in research writing:
Remember that one of the purposes of research writing is to help your readers understand the conversation, and how you are adding to the conversation; appropriate paraphrasing maintains your own academic integrity, but also helps your readers get a clearer picture of how you are engaging in the conversation.
When deciding how to use sources, always keep in mind:
Why are you using this information? What does your audience need?