A surprisingly difficult part of learning to write for an academic audience is how to quote other authors effectively. In my experience, some writers simply have an ear for it and have no trouble incorporating their source material into their analyses. But many others struggle with applying the text and ideas of others in a way that doesn’t feel awkward or mechanized and that moves their own ideas forward.
Here is a set of approaches, encapsulated in the easy-to-remember abbreviation AC/DC, to help you strengthen your use of other authors in your writing.
How many quotations are too many? And how much material should you be quoting from each? The conventions for this will vary according to your field and the type of publication you’re writing or writing for. I have read literature reviews that were made up 40–60% of direct quotations, and I would say that in most cases this is far too much. However, the graduate students’ professors had instructed them to provide this quote load, and in those cases, following professors' requirements is much like working with a house style guide in that there's probably a reason for the rule (though we may never know or understand that reason) and so you just go with it.
Nonetheless, if you’re familiar with the standards for your field, there will probably be a point at which you feel uncomfortable with how much you’re quoting but don't know how to stop it. This might happen if you’re including sources “because you have to” (or because you feel like you do) but would much rather be talking about your own research.
Problem: Quotes for Quotes’ Sake
A weak literature review, to me, is one in which many or most of the quotations are presented as if they speak for themselves. They have little intro and little explanation, as if the writer were expecting the quotations to do all the work.
I wasn’t personally taught never to end a paragraph on a quotation, but I know that some people have been. I wouldn’t advise internalizing this suggestion as a hard-and-fast rule—there are times when doing so can actually be effective—but I will propose that the rule-that’s-not-a-rule exists in some corners of the writing world for good reasons and that applying it wisely can improve your writing.
A quote that goes unexplained has the potential to leave the reader hanging. The writer is essentially leaving it to the reader to draw her own conclusions about what the heck the quotation is doing there. While ending a paragraph on a quotation isn’t always a bad choice, it is one often enough that you, as a writer, should stay alert and assess any instance of this in your writing to determine whether there’s something more you could be doing for that quotation.
Problem: Improper paraphrasing
In my post on types of plagiarism you might not know were plagiarism, I talked about how certain kinds of paraphrasing are violations of academic integrity. If you’re trying to describe a source’s arguments, findings, theories, and so on, you know you’re not supposed to quote the material verbatim without quotation marks (and maybe you're already quote-weary, as above), but the author has just explained the point so well that you can’t imagine improving on it.
Knowing you have to do something, you try substituting words: “research” becomes “study,” “conclusions” become “findings,” and before long, you’ve reiterated the author’s original text in your own words. Sorry, but this is not ideal. Even if you’re giving attribution correctly, the outcome is likely to sound awkward, artificial, and sometimes transparent. There are better ways to address this text.
Those are the main problems I’ve come across in graduate student writing when it comes to quotation use. Let’s talk about what you can do about that, using an AC/DC framework: Apply and Contextualize/Discuss and Converse.
Solution keywords: Apply and Contextualize
When you’re writing a literature review, the main question to return to in every paragraph is, “How does this source enhance, advance, contextualize, or speak to my current argument?” Framing each paragraph around answering that question can help you conquer all three of our problem habits. You’re exploring the sources in the context of your paper in progress.
It can take you out of the quote-for-quote’s-sake rut by forcing you to add an analysis to every paragraph that you’re tempted to end after the quotation. It will address the issue of over-quoting by getting you to think about how much of the quotation you even need. You’re not using this quotation to illustrate your familiarity with the source; you’re using it to move your own paper forward. Any part of the quotation that you can’t analyze for that purpose probably doesn’t need to be included.
Finally, the apply part of the AC/DC plan infuses your paraphrases with function, as well. You’re no longer paraphrasing in order to reiterate the source in new words; you’re summarizing specific parts of the work in order to more closely incorporate that material into yours. Think of it this way: if the source serves no purpose in your paper outside your need for it, how does that change the way you describe it?
Solution keywords: Discuss and Converse
This is similar to the above, but instead of explaining how a single source applies to your research, you’re putting two or more sources in conversation with each other in order to identify how your current research fits into the discussion, as well.
Your writing is part of an overall conversation that is going on among scholars in your field. Your sources are simply discussants who’ve already had their say, so now you’re picking up what they’ve been saying to each other (albeit not always directly) and identifying where your voice fits in.
To use the discuss and converse approach, choose two or more sources that you’re drawn to for similar or perhaps even conflicting reasons. Maybe they’re empirical studies that contributed to different dimensions of your project. Maybe they’re case studies that you’re drawing similarities from to advance a theory or hypothesis. Maybe they’re theoretical works that examine a central component of your research in different ways.
If you’re working on a dissertation or thesis in particular—but sometimes even if you’re not—then the key question with this approach is, “What am I contributing that these authors haven’t?” There’s always something. It might be something as minor as “I’m replicating their experiment with this one additional variable or control” or as major as “I’m developing a theoretical construct that explains the conflict between these authors’ conclusions.” But there will always be something. Use that question to frame the conversation you guide your sources through. If you’re doing it right, you’re not just answering the question separately for the two (or more) sources but looking for the intersections between them that turn this into a full-scale scholarly conversation that you’re about to jump into.
What other approaches might be helpful for writers who aren’t using quotations in their papers as effectively as they could? I’m interested in hearing more in the comments!
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.