how to write an essay
 
Step 9: MLA Style

When using ideas or phrases from other writers in your own essay, you must correctly cite in your text exactly where the ideas or phrases come from. Correctly identifying these ideas and phrases is called "in-text citation," and the page at the end of your essay listing the sources you used is called a "Works Cited" page.

Different disciplines follow different style guides for in-text citation and Works Cited pages, but in most writing courses, because they fall under the humanities discipline, MLA (Modern Language Association) Style is used. Although there are many details and rules about incorporating research into your essay, the following five basic principles will help you correctly ingetrate sources in your essay.

1. Make sure all authors cited in the body of your essay also appear on the Works Cited page.

If you quote Jones, Smith, and Johnson in your essay, these three authors should appear with full documentation on the Works Cited pagel. Don't forget them. Likewise, all the authors or sources listed in the Works Cited page should appear in the body of your essay. There should be no sources listed on the Works Cited page that were not cited in your actual essay.

2. Only quote catchy or memorable phrases or sentences.

If the source you're quoting is unremarkable and dry in its expression or opinion, don't bring that unremarkable, dry text into your own writing as well. Paraphrase this material instead, and follow up your paraphrase with the author's name in parentheses (or the article title, if there is no author). Only quote catchy, memorable, quotable phrases, and keep the quotations short -- one or two lines usually. In general you want to quote sparingly and preserve your own voice.

3. Don't rely too much on the same source.

If you have four or five quotes from the same author, your reader will eventually just desire to read that author instead. Too much quoting also compromises your own voice and sense of authority about the issue. Rather than limiting your research to one or two authors, draw upon a wide variety of sources, and quote only snippets from each. Having variety will ensure that you are well read in the subject and that you've examined the issue from multiple perspectives.

4. Follow up your quotations with commentary, interpretation, or analysis.

Avoid just dropping in the quotation and then immediately moving on, assuming the reader fully understands the meaning, purpose, and application of the quotation just presented. You almost always should comment on the quotation in some way, even if your commentary is a simple reexplanation of what the quotation means ("In other words . . ."). Remember that you're taking the quotation from an article you've read, but the reader only gets a glimpse of that whole article and lacks the context that you have, so it might be more difficult for the reader to understand it. Because the essay is supposed to represent your ideas, not just those of another, you must find some way to comment or analyze what you summarize or quote.

5. Use signal phrases to introduce your quotations.

A signal phrase is a clause before the quotation that identifies the author (e.g., "Jones says," or "According to Jones . . ."). Signal phrases are essential to create a bridge between your own voice and that of another you are incorporating into your essay. If you identify the author in the signal phrase, don't also identify author in parentheses following the quotation. Once is enough.

Also, don't put the article title in the signal phrase unless you want to draw particular attention it. Including the article title in your signal phrase usually results in a long, clunky pre-quote phrase that takes the focus off the quotation.

  • Example of a clunky pre-quote signal phrase: According to the article "Censorship in American High School Reading Classes," Twain's Huckleberry Finn has been "sacrificed to the gods of political correctness, without any attention to its literary merits." (Avoid putting the article title in the signal phrase.)
  • Better: According to the American Quarterly Review, Twain's Huckleberry Finn has been "sacrificed to the gods of political correctness, without any attention to its literary merits."
  • Even Better: According to Edmund Wilson, "Twain rewrote the American setting through his character Huck Finn."

  • Example of redundancy: Mark Twain says the secret to success is "making your vocation your vacation" (Twain.) (We don't need Twain identified twice!)

Special note--"qtd. in": Suppose you're using a quotation that appears inside an article written by someone other than the one saying the quotation. In other words, if you're using, say, Judge William's quotation that appears within Mary Jones' article, you cite it by writing "qtd. in" following the quote. If so, write "qtd. in Jones," or whomever.

  • Example: According to Judge Williams, "just law is the foundation of a just society" (qtd. in Jones).

If Jones is just paraphrasing Williams, then you would omit the "qtd. in" and just write (Jones).

 

Practice: Read Diana Hacker's sample research essay and identify as many instances as you can where the above five principles are used.

 


Tom Johnson. tjohnson@aucegypt.edu. Last updated May 2004.