What are citations? Why do we use them?

What are citations?

Citations have two parts.  One part is a direct quote taken from a text or online text.  The other part identifies the text in a particular way so your readers can find the original quote if they want to.

Why do we use citations?

Citations allow you, the writer, to show that experts agree with your thinking.  Your ideas are not yours alone; they are supported by respected experts.

Citations give credit to the expert sources you use.  Citations let your readers know where you found the experts who agree with you.  Citations allow your readers to trace back your sources which they might want to know more about.

Citations make your claims more believable.  By using citations, you are being up front with your readers, telling them exactly who your sources are.

Citations protect you against plagiarism.  If you quote or even paraphrase the ideas of others without identifying them, you can be accused of plagiarism, a serious offense in the academic world.

Who uses citations?

Beginning in middle school, students learn what citations are and how to use them, usually using sources that a teacher provides.  By high school, students are expected to write research papers in which they must identify sources they have searched for.  In college, graduate school and in postgraduate work, students and professionals use citations when they write scholarly papers, master’s degree theses and doctoral dissertations.

But you might think you aren’t going to college, so why do you need to learn citations.  First, you might change your mind about your career goals, so schools want you prepared.  Second, by knowing what citations are, and why they are used, you are better able to judge the credibility of what you read.  If a politician makes a claim, for example, you might wonder where his information comes from.  Or you might realize that a friend can’t tell you where his “facts” come from.  You will be more aware of fraudulent claims.

Examples of citations used in text

Here are some examples of citations I used in my master’s thesis, Do Teacher Comments on Homework Matter?  The first one paraphrases information without using a direct quotation, but the source is still given.

  • One of the earliest entries in 20th century literature regarding homework is a 1913 Ladies’ Home Journal cover feature calling on parents to abolish homework in the public schools. . . .The article quotes principal after anonymous principal who say that homework is a waste of time (Ladies’ Home Journal, 1913).

Here are two citations that use a direct quote:

  • Goldstein found that doing homework does contribute to educational achievement. “The data in most of the studies suggest that regularly assigned homework favors higher academic achievement, and a few of the best-designed experiments show this quite clearly” (Goldstein, 1960).
  • Cooper (1989). . . .writes that “homework probably involves the complex interaction of more influences than any other instructional device” (p. 87).

In the “References” section of my thesis, more complete information is given about each of the citations.  For example, the entry for Cooper reads “Cooper, H. (1989).  Synthesis of Research on Homework.  Educational Leadership, 47(3), 85-91.”

In the actual text part of a research paper, a short identification of the source is given.  In the References section (sometimes called Bibliography), a complete identification is given.  Both a short identification within the text and a complete identification in the References section are necessary for a complete citation.

What comes first, the idea or the citation?

When you plan a vacation, what do you do first?  Do you decide where to go—to the beach, to a Broadway play, to Graceland—or do you pack your skies?

Likewise, when you are given a topic to write about by your teacher—for example, Who is responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?—what do you do first?  Do you consider which characters might be responsible?  Or do you search for a citation—any citation—and work backward from the citation to a person responsible?

I suspect most ninth grade ELA teachers expect their students to start by thoughtfully considering who might be responsible for Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths.  Could it be impetuous Romeo who cannot wait to have sex with Juliet?  Could it be Juliet’s father, who is forcing Juliet to marry Paris against her will?  Could it be hotheaded Tybalt, who starts a sword fight which leads to Romeo being banished?

I suspect most ninth grade ELA teachers do not want their students to read a given source material, find a good quote, and base their whole essay on that one quote.

But last week, a ninth grader I tutor, instead of considering who might be most responsible for Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths, started organizing his essay by searching the sources his teacher supplied for words which said someone—anyone—is responsible.  Then he based his essay on that information which he cited.

In discussing my student’s approach, I learned my student really thought that to write an essay using citations he should start with a citation (or in his case, three citations) and go backwards in search of a thesis that would incorporate those three citations.  As a result, his thesis was three-pronged and vacuous.  His essay did not contain a central, controlling idea.

What happened here?

  • Did his teacher think a previous teacher taught him how to write using citations? Did she think she didn’t need to teach that all over again?
  • Did his teacher think she didn’t need to sequence the process of writing an essay using citations? Did she think that of course the student would know to start with the idea and then find supporting information?
  • Did my student miss the main idea of using citations, that they back up—support—prove—ideas?
  • Was my student taking the lazy way out—or so he thought—by finding a citation first?

Whatever.  From this experience, I learned that

  • Teaching how to use citations begins with why we use citations—to have outside, often expert sources back up our ideas.
  • Teaching how to write an essay using citations is necessary even if other teachers have already taught the process.
  • Students need to practice using citations over and over until they get it. Writing one essay in eighth grade and another in ninth grade is not enough.
  • Students must have an idea first before looking for experts to back it up.
  • Teachers need to say that starting with a citation and then backtracking to an idea or a thesis will probably lead to a weak, poorly written essay and a low grade.

 

 

How to write narrative essays

Narrative essays are short stories, real or imagined.  Like novels, they follow a pattern of beginning, middle, and end, or in academic terms, inciting event, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

But how do you begin?  This is the question I am asked more than any other by my students.  My answer is the same as for an expository or persuasive essay.  You begin with a written plan.

I have students write the word “beginning” near the top of the page, “middle” about a third of the way down, and “end” a bit up from the bottom (on notebook paper or on a blank page on the computer—it doesn’t matter).

Next to “beginning” I have students write “setting” and draw a sideways V like this:  <.  Extending from the top arm of the <, I ask students to write the place where the story takes place.  Next to the bottom arm of the <, I ask students to write the time of day/season or some other words to indicate when the story is taking place.  For example, these words could be “the first day of middle school,” or “when I broke five ribs.”  I ask students to start by identifying the setting because this is what readers look for when they start to read a narrative.  They want to know if they are reading about the French Revolution or life on Mars one thousand years into the future.  Knowing the setting orients readers.  It should be noted in the first paragraph or two of a narrative.

Continuing under “beginning,” I ask students to identify in a column the characters who will be in the story.  Sometimes this means names and sometimes this means positions or relationships such as “the doctor” or “the hit-and-run driver.”  Next to each character, name the character’s role such as protagonist, antagonist, foil, mentor, sage, trouble-maker or any roles that make sense.  Also list character traits and emotions to emphasize for each important character.

Readers want to identify and get in the head of the most important character, the focal character.  They want to emotionally feel what that character feels.  So decide who that character is.  Usually, it is the protagonist.

Identify the theme you want to show.  In other kinds of essays, the “theme” is called the main idea or the thesis.  In narratives you should be able to state the theme in a sentence such as “Doing something hard in public takes courage” or “Dogs can be exasperating.”  The theme is what you want to emphasize in your narrative.

In a column under “middle,” list the events or incidents that will happen in the story in the sequence in which they will happen.  Usually, this sequence is chronological order.  Any other kind of sequence such as jumping back and forth in time will make your narrative difficult to follow.  I find using bullets is a good way to list, especially if you are using a computer that allows you to cut and paste to reorder information.

You want the “middle” to be long enough so you can identify details to use—maybe 15 lines.  If the “middle” is too short, you haven’t thought your plot through enough.  If it is longer than 15 lines, you need to cut back.  A good finished narrative length is about three pages of text, double spaced, in 12-point type (1000 words).  Many teachers won’t read more unless your writing is exceptional.

Under “end,” write “climax.”  Identify what happens at the climax.  This is where the theme is most evident, where you do that thing in public that is so hard or where that exasperating dog forces you to take action.  At the climax, readers should feel strong emotion.  So should you as you write and reread your climax.

If you have introduced details left unexplained, do that quickly.  Then write your ending.  What is most important is that the ending is satisfying to the reader.  Satisfying is not the same as positive.  Not all endings are happy.  Even when the ending doesn’t turn out as the protagonist hopes, that character still comes away a different person, someone who has grown through the experience.  Make sure your protagonist shows growth and that growth is connected to your theme.

11 rules to keep you, the author, invisible to your readers

Most fiction writers want readers to get so captivated while reading a story that they forget someone wrote it.  If invisibility is the effect you want, you might want to read these eleven rules of Elmore Leonard–author of 45 novels–from 20 years ago.*

Rule 1:  Don’t open a passage with a weather report.  People read novels to learn about people, not the weather.

Rule 2:  No prologues. Prologues usually contain backstory which can be added later as the story unfolds.

Rule 3:  Use “said”—nothing else—when a character speaks.  “Said” is almost invisible, but any other word—asserted, warned—distracts the reader from the action to the author.

Rule 4:  Don’t use adverbs to describe “said.”  Adverbs distract from the story action and remind the reader that an author wrote this story.

Rule 5:  Limit exclamations marks to almost zero.

Rule 6:  Don’t use “suddenly.”  If you say, for example, “Suddenly, he fell,” the reader knows something is about to happen before the story’s character does.

Rule 7:  Rarely use regional dialect.  That requires apostrophes and weird spellings.  Once you start, it’s hard to stop.  And hard to read.

Rule 8:  Keep descriptions of characters brief.  Let their dialog conjure images in the reader’s mind.

Rule 9:  Keep descriptions of places and things brief.  Descriptions of anything slow down or even stop the forward action of a story.

Rule 10:  Skip long paragraphs without dialog.  Readers do.

Rule 11:  Don’t use proper diction if it sounds unnatural, or if it slows down the action.

*These rules are paraphrased from the July 16, 2001, edition of The New York Times, Section E, page 1.  I recommend you read Leonard’s original words.  They’re a hoot.

Add your voice to your college application essays

Students applying for college are required to write one or more essays.  This is so the colleges can “know” a student, that is, so the admissions committee can differentiate one student from the thousands of other students who apply.

So, most importantly, a good essay must make a student stand out.  How?

Not by good vocabulary or varied sentence structure or clear organization.  That is a given.  Not by expressing passion for a school or a major.  Most students can do that.  No, something else is required.

That something else is what writers call “voice.”  Voice means that when the admissions committee reads an essay, they can picture the real live person who wrote it, a person with a distinct personality which comes through loud and clear.

To write that kind of essay, students need to reveal themselves being vulnerable or using self-deprecating humor or showing a shortcoming as well as a strength.  Here are a few examples.

  • A student through no work of her own earns straight A’s in math. She listens and understands without studying.  She captains a competitive math team.  But she confesses that as easy as math is for her, reading is hard.  She reads some words backwards and guesses at long words.  She depends on other people to read aloud to her.  She writes this in her essay, not bragging about the math or apologizing about the reading.  What will the committee remember?  Her honesty.

 

  • Another student admits he is a skinny, muscle-challenged nerd. He recalls an instance when he felt put on the spot, needing to compete in an athletic contest against a real jock.  The jock went first, accomplishing the challenge easily.  The nerd followed, the eyes of every classmate on his scrawny body.  Slowly, painstakingly, he competed.  Breathless after a couple of minutes, he paused, hearing kids screaming.  “Go!  Go!  Go!”  For him!  He resumed, narrowly beating the jock and collapsing.  But for one brief, shining moment, he knew the thrill of victory, the thrill of girls cheering his name.  What will the committee remember?  His bravery.  His self-deprecating humor.

 

  • Still another student writes that she was asked to be a camp counselor for the summer. Hardly any salary, but swimming in a lake, hiking on mountain trails, and sitting around campfires cooking s’mores.  She yearned to say yes, but her mother needed her to babysit her siblings while school was out.  “One of the hardest things I ever did was to put the letter to the camp director in the mailbox,” she wrote.  What will the committee remember?  Her compassion.

Students, if you are reluctant to reveal yourself, your essay probably isn’t good enough.  You needn’t bare your soul, but you do need to get uncomfortable to let your voice shine through.