how to write an essay

There are three main ways to integrate quotations into your essay: (1) direct quotation, (2) paraphrase, and (3) mixed quotation. You should usually paraphrase the material, and only directly quote it or give a mixed quotation when the phrasing of the quotation is interesting or catchy in some pleasing way -- quote when the text is quotable, in other words (like the quotation on the homepage of this site).

1. Direct Quotation

Direct quotation involves quoting word for word one or more sentences from an author or source. When you quote, be sure to introduce your quotation with a signal phrase. A signal phrase is a clause that lets the reader know who the author or source is. In the following examples of direct quotation, note how the signal phrases precede the quotations:

  • According to Karl Menninger, a Freudian psychoanalyst, "the wish to kill, unexpectedly robbed of certain external occasions or objects of unconscious gratification, may be turned back upon the person of the wisher and carried into effect as suicide" (54). (Notice how the phrase "a Freudian psychoanalyst" explains who Menninger is. Phrases that rename their subjects like this must always be enclosed in commas.)

  • Menninger says that "suicide occurs when an individual thus treats himself as an external object, frequently identified with the very object toward which his love and hate, particularly his unconscious wish to kill, had been directed" (55). (The inclusion of the word "that" allows you to omit the comma. If you don't use "that," however, then you would need the comma.)

  • Menninger says, "In Catholic countries there is usually a higher homicide rate, a lower suicide rate; in Protestant countries a higher suicide and lower homicide rate" (61). (The number in parentheses indicates what page the quotation is on. If your source doesn't have page numbers (e.g., a website), then do not invent any page or paragraph numbers here.)

2. Paraphrase

Paraphrase, instead of quoting the author word for word, involves putting the original phrasing into your own words. Be careful to substantially reword the original, however. If you leave just several words in a row unchanged, it will be considered plagiarism -- because you're essentially stealing someone else's phrasing.

As far as signal phrases and paraphrasing go, when you paraphrase you can choose whether or not to use a signal phrase. If you do not use a signal phrase, you must identify the author in parentheses following the paraphrase. Here are a few examples:

  • Freudian psychoanalyst Karl Menninger says that people who are deprived of the ability to kill others usually end up turning their murderous anger back upon themselves to commit suicide (54). (Notice how I've totally reworded this from the previous section. The rewording is my own phrasing.)

  • Suicide occurs when an individual redirects his initially outward-directed hatred back upon himself (Menninger 55). (Notice that there is no signal phrase here, so I have identified the author in parentheses following the paraphrase.)

  • Menninger explains that Catholic countries report higher rates of homicide and lower rates of suicide, while Protestant countries report the reverse: more suicides and less homicides (61). (Notice that the author is identified in the signal phrase, so I don't need to identify him again in the parentheses following the paraphrase.)

3. Mixed Quotations

Mixed quotations are a mix between direct quotation and paraphrase. Mixed quotations involve paraphrasing half of the original but mixing in a few direct selections from the author. When you insert mixed quotations, be sure to blend in the quotation with the grammar of your own sentence. The sentence as a whole must flow smoothly.

To achieve this smooth flow with mixed quotations, you may need to omit or add words from or to the original. To omit words, insert an ellipses . . . in place of the words you take out. Ellipses always indicate omission. To add words, insert them inside brackets [ ] to indicate the insertion. Notice that there are spaces between the ellipses dots and that the brackets are square, not rounded like parentheses.

  • e.e. Cummings asserted that the poet's imagination and his "preoccupation with the Verb" results in an ability to surpass normal standards of logic and create "an irresistible truth [in which] 2 x 2 = 5" (34). (Notice that the words "in which" inside brackets are my own insertion. I needed to add them so that the sentence would flow grammatically.)

  • B.F. Skinner, a social constructionist, believes that our behavior is "a genetic endowment traceable to the evolutionary history of the species" and that whatever predispositions or character we have developed, it is a consequence of our environmental immersion rather than innate character (78). (I chose to quote partially here to be accurate with Skinner's definition, but I didn't want to quote too much from Skinner because his writing may be difficult for my audience to understand.)

  • Poet Wallace Stevens, when asked about his literary influences, explained that he was "not conscious of having been influenced by anybody and ha[d] purposely held off from reading . . . Eliot and Pound" in order to refrain from unconsciously imitating their works and ruining his originality (234). (Note the ellipses. I omitted several words to shorten the quotation around the essential point I wanted to communicate. I also had to change "have" to "had," and so wrote ha[d] to indicate the alteration..)


Plagiarism -- its original meaning, "to kidnap" -- is a serious academic offense that can result in your failure of the course and possible suspension from the university. It is important that you know what plagiarism entails so that you can avoid the consequences. Ignorance is no excuse.

In short, plagiarism occurs whenever a student attempts to pass off someone else's ideas or phrasing as his or her own, rather than giving due credit to the author. Even if the student mentions the source, if he or she fails to put quotation marks around phrasing not his or her own, it is considered plagiarism, because the student is attempting to pass off phrasing that does not belong to him or her.

You can learn more about plagiarism in two easy ways:

  1. Take this excellent ten question plagiarism quiz prepared by Indiana University. Highly recommended!

  2. Read about plagiarism from AUC's Academic Integrity site.

Links and Practice

I have compiled a number of websites, Word documents, and Powerpoints on MLA style, created by different instructors and organizations who present the complexities of in-text citation and works cited.

You can also do some practices with in-text citation.


Tom Johnson. Updated May 2004.