quotations – handle with care

Quotations are dangerous. The way that you use quotations can give away whether you think you are still writing as a student, or writing as an expert scholar in your own right.

Student assignments are often heavily strewn with quotations. The Essay, the typical genre for assignments, is usually marked by chunks of text liberally interspersed with indented quotations. This use of quotations may be intended to show the person marking the assignment that the writer has read lots of ‘stuff’. What’s more, they have not only read them, but also read them well enough to be able to select relevant quotations.

Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate (yes that’s a very long time ago) I always learnt a few select multi-purpose quotations that I could insert into exam papers where appropriate. I though that this would show the examiner that I knew the literatures very well, so well that I could reel off some actual text on demand. I deliberately used a kind of academic name-dropping approach where I tried to show that I knew who was who in the field by quoting them at what seemed to be respectable intervals. Looking back I’m pretty sure that all this actually showed was that I had a good short-term memory, rather than anything about my grasp of the subject.

Every undergraduate marker also knows that padding out the assignment with quotations is an easy way to reach the word limit. This was not my problem as an undergraduate, but I have certainly marked a lot of under and post graduate assignments where quotations have been integral to a must-reach-word-limit strategy.

Sometimes quotations are used extensively because the writer thinks that this is what is expected of academic writing. However, this is not actually the case. Expert scholars don’t over-rely on quotations. Unless they are conducting a textual analysis, they generally tend to only refer to the work of others where necessary. They do this by summarizing the key points that they use from others’ work. They use citations and footnotes rather than extensive quotations. They use a quotation only when there is no better way of explaining a particular point, or when they want to give a flavour of a particularly scholarly ‘voice’ – in addition to their own.

I often review journal articles where a social theorist has been used. The theoretical work is introduced early in the paper and very often through a proliferation of quotations. It is not uncommon to see the balance of a social theory section weighted towards quotations, rather than a succinct summary being made by the writer. This actually suggests to the reader – in this case me – that the writer doesn’t know the theory well enough to explain it themselves. Reading this early in a paper thus adversely affects the reading that follows.

That is not the only contrary impact of quotations. Extensive use of quotations can suggest to readers that:

• the writer is not confident enough to say things in their own words. They summarise at length and use the words of others as a kind of shield behind which they are hiding. This timidity is exacerbated if quotations are used as if they speak for themselves, rather than the writer providing an interpretation of them or saying how they are relevant to the discussion in hand.

• the writer has no ideas of their own. They must generate an argument solely through the work of others. They are incapable of anything but derivative thought.

• the writer is not thinking about the reader. It is actually pretty off-putting to encounter slabs of over-documented, excessively exemplified prose. It is monotonous, dull and hard to read. It also overshadows whatever original thought is being presented.

So there is very good reason to be wary of quotations. They must be handled with care. Do check their use if you want to avoid presenting your work as an assignment, rather than as an argument for your own contribution. Over quoting can help to undermine your authority as a writer and your credibility as a scholar.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in authority in writing, contribution, quotations and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to quotations – handle with care

  1. Pingback: Academic writing: some resources | Achilleas Kostoulas

  2. Eleanor Carson says:

    Thank you for this article. I don`t have a problem with quotations – I always reword the relevant ideas – but I do have a problem with summarizing a series of researchers rather than interpreting them. I don`t even notice when I`m doing that. Could you write an article on interpreting researchers? Avoiding the deadly series of summaries? Are there questions I could ask of the papers I`m looking at, which prompt me to interpret rather than summarize? This might seem obvious to you, but it isn`t always that obvious to me (and I suspect others)! Thanks!


    • pat thomson says:

      Ill try. My first thought is that it’s a bit long for a blog post so I’ll need to think about how to do it economically.


      • Eleanor Carson says:

        Thank you! Perhaps, to reduce the length, you could focus on questions to approach papers that need to be discussed. Questions that the writer could ask of each work of literature or research that the writer wants to interpret rather than summarize. Does that help?


      • pat thomson says:

        Barbara and I have done questions in our doctoral writing book, and its still in the new edition, out after Christmas. I could dig that out… and I think I might have posted on this before so Ill have a look back as well to see if I have anything else to add.


  3. kshjensen says:

    I am very interested in this advice about quotations because I really like using quotations and I also find it useful when others quote authors at length in their writing. I think this is possibly to do with my earliest essay writing which included a lot of textual analysis and so your interpretative claims had to be illustrated and backed up with quotations from the original texts.

    I absolutely agree that quotations do not speak for themselves and that summarising arguments is key to demonstrating your knowledge and your interpretation of work that has gone before. However, I think it can be problematic when writers sum up key points without giving the original text of the source they are interpreting. Of course you can’t do this for all the literature you are using as this would not be practical or interesting to read.
    To give a specific example I am writing about ‘student engagement’ and there are quite a few contested definitions of the term. In my writing I certainly offer my interpretation of the various definitions and how my work relates to them but I am also quoting the definitions I am using/discussing.

    I do find it problematic that some writers sum up key points from other theorists with very generic citation (i.e. a whole book rather than specific pages/chapters) which leaves the reader at a loss to where to find the basis for those key points. To give an example, a lot of writers tend to use concepts like ‘communities of practice’ with a reference to the work of Lave and Wenger (e.g. Situated Learning (1991). Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press) without discussing, contextualising or defining the concept. In my view this kind of practice is what really makes me question the credibility of the writer.

    To me one of the greatest benefits of quotations is that they give the reader an opportunity to see the source that you are interpretating and to some extent critically review your interpretation. But perhaps this is not a very realistic or shared view?
    Anyway, I really enjoy reading your blog, always has great advice and makes me think. Thanks, Kathrine


    • pat thomson says:

      The trick with definitional work is getting beyond The List. It has to be an argument about which definition is preferable, or why the differences occurred, or what the differences show, or what kind of knowledge and practice are made possible through different definitions…


  4. Janvi says:

    Hi Pat,

    I follow your blog regularly and find your commentary to be my go-to guide for good, effective academic writing especially as I edge closer towards the completion of my PhD thesis. Your blog entries seem to have great timing too, as though instinctively following my chain of thoughts.

    I spent this morning struggling with how to use some important quotations while constantly trying to contextualize them with my central question. I think it forms an important facet of quoting is: how does a certain quote fit into your current writing scheme? It should be alright to quote a source that takes your argument forward, even if you do not paraphrase it. Show, rather than tell. However, it would have be interesting if you had categorized the kind of quotes against the purpose they serve. For instance, for someone engaged in development research, there are some quotes that validate your point (statistics that validate a variable in your hypothesis) and then there are other quotes that provide you with more descriptive data on your work (authors with a different hypothesis but with similar contexts) and finally there are other quotes that simply present a different perspective from your own, thus making your argument stronger.

    I still try to quote most writers that are pioneers in my field of study, although I used to do it more shamelessly as an undergrad. I guess what I am trying to say here is that the reasons academics and novices use quotations are completely different but they are assets to your main argument. Coming to the final point that you make on how expert scholars differ from students, I find that argument a bit unfair. It takes an awfully long time to find your own voice in academic writing, it involves a lot of hard work and constant editing, which expert scholars have at their disposal but students don’t. The difference is obvious but your argument makes it look like there is a magical door between the two, which there isn’t. I think an important skill that most students need to become expert researchers is, resilience. Quotes or no quotes, footnotes or no footnotes, finding your own voice is a long road home and no amounting of playing with the Word toolbox can change that reality.


    • pat thomson says:

      I often start a train of blogs by making overall comments. These are intended to paint the landscape rather than give the details which are often specific to disciplines. Classifying the ways in which quotations are used in an interesting idea and it is a way to proceed. I think that this kind of work probably exists in the genre literatures already and I’ll have a bit of a look for it. However there’s a lot I can’t do in blogs. My books often give examples from real doctoral writers but there is just not the space, nor is it the style of blogs, to do this.
      Re expert and novice. I think that one of the ways that people can learn the conventions of academic writing is by looking at what experts do. While the novice /expert isn’t a binary but a continuum, there are real differences that exist and that can been seen by looking at the ends of the spectrum. My use of these terms certainly wasnt intended to be unhelpful, but the reverse. Apologies if you found it too confronting.


  5. Brian says:

    Hi Pat

    Here is a left field view of quotations, and your post has made me consider how and why I use quotes. I come from a law enforcement background (previous employment and current role as an educator), and I have always had drummed into me to use their words, do not substitute their words for yours. Also, I still have the words of one of my undergad lectures who told us we can have an original idea, as long as we find someone else who has had it so we can cite them.

    So, this often creates dilemmas for me as I sit here working on my dissertation lit review, which currently has a lot of quotes which I need to reduce and refine to show a synthesis of ideas. Often I feel that I abusing the ideas of others by refining and integrating them into my paper. I understand the ‘academic’ side of it all, but at times it is a mental struggle.


    • pat thomson says:

      Yes I think it is. This also applies to quoting from research participants. Like most things academic, it’s a question of judgment rather than a rule.. And thus about learning, and sweating over the results.


  6. Pingback: The Quotations In This

  7. maelorin says:

    i use quotations to establish a theme that i then build upon, or to highlight where my argument either runs parallel or diverges from key authorities or literatures. I’m a lawyer/technocrat, so my argument draws upon legal, policy, and/or technological sources – each with their own customs and habits.

    sometimes a nice pithy quotation helps cement a link between or bridge across disciplines. i am using public policy as the bridge/common ground for my discussions of legal and technological matters.

    in any event, i rarely use more than a sentence or two – and usually as a framing statement at the beginning of an article, chapter, or section – rather than as chunks in my narrative. only if it is necessary, such as quoting a key judge’s authoritative statement, or contrasting phrasing to esablish a point, do i insert a chunk of someone else’s voice into my discussion. i find breaking up the flow of my voice can disrupt my own thinking as much as it might that of my audience.

    however, i still find it hard not to write out nifty chunks from sources when i’m taking notes.


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