Using Quotations, Part I -->

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Using Quotations, Part I

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The best way to use quotations is to regard them as a last resort. Calling them a last resort does not mean that they are bad in and of themselves, but that overusing quotations is one of the surest ways to lose your readers’ attention and confidence in your standing as a scholarly writer.

Think about it this way: As a reader, I am choosing to spend part of my day reading your paper or dissertation. Instead, I could be watching TV, checking Facebook, taking a napor (so you don’t think I’m a complete sloth) buying groceries, cooking dinner, or training for my next marathon. But no, I am choosing to read your paper because I expect that I can learn something new, insightful, and unique—something that only you can provide.

Beware sign: Too many quotations

So if, as a reader, I find that a paper or dissertation is almost entirely made of quotations from other studies—aren’t I wasting my time? I want to know what you think, not all those other people. Most of all, I want the opportunity to dive into your thoughts, to see how your brain works, to view the world as you view it in all your genius and informed, critical thinking. Certainly I can’t do that if I see quotation after quotation after quotation! Here is a visual representation of what I mean:

“Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation). “Quotation” (citation).

You get the idea. Here’s another example adapted from our resource on using evidence:

Teachers in ESL classrooms need more access to professional development. According to Grant (2009), "The percentage of ESL students in high schools has gone up 75% in the last ten years" (p. 338), and "the scope of ESL education is changing rapidly" (Gramber, 2010, p. 2834.) Teachers are finding it difficult to keep up with these population changes. Judes (2008) suggested "ESL teachers often do not have updated certification," and a study found that "non-native English speakers require a different pedagogy than native speakers”" (Bartlett, 2004, p. 97).

Rather than relying on quotations so heavily, aim to use them for only three reasons:
  • To introduce a specific term, phrase, or concept particular to an author/study that supports your own argument or analysis.
  • To emphasize or elaborate on your own argument or analysis.
  • To provide evidence or an example of your own argument or analysis.

Note that I repeat a key phrase here: “your own argument or analysis.” Remember that quotations (just like paraphrased source material) should supplement, rather than comprise, the critical thinking and synthesis your readers will expect from you, and you alone.

Here are three reasons not to use quotations, along with alternatives to consider:

  • Because you can’t possibly say it that well. (You can! Just practice effective paraphrasing.)
  • Because your instructor wants “evidence-based” analysis. (Paraphrases are also evidence, and they are usually stronger because they are integrated with your analysis.)
  • Because you just don’t have time to write more on your own. (Make time! Start earlier! Plan ahead!)

To prove to readers that you are more than just a copy-and-paste robot, do that extra work to provide your own analysis, using quotations as an icing on the cake rather than the entire batter.


When you do use that icing, you want make it look good, rather than just slopping it on the top of your carefully-baked cake. For tips on how to use quotations effectively, see Dissertation Editor Tim's post “Using Quotations, Part II.”

Other posts you might like:

Context, Context, Context!
WriteCast Episode 3: Creating a Successful Paragraph

Writing Instructor Nik NadeauNik Nadeau has worked as a writing instructor at Walden University Writing Center since 2011. He has reviewed more than 3500 student dissertations, capstone assignments, and course papers, and he takes great pride in seeing students enhance their persuasion and overall presence via the written word.

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