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The Questions Writers Ask

Our Writing Center Consultants tell us that the questions below are the ones students most frequently ask. Click on a question and you'll get a quick answer we hope will help you if you are unable to come in and meet with a consultant at this time. If you don't find an answer to your particular question, feel free to ask your question in the form below, and one of our consultants will e-mail you within 48 hours.
  1. My instructor tells me I need to use in-text citations. How do I do that?
  2. I'm writing a paper. Do I need a thesis statement?
  3. I never know what to write in my conclusion. Do I just say the same stuff I said in the introduction?
  4. Do I need in-text citations when I'm summarizing or paraphrasing?
  5. Why shouldn't I quote all the time? Doesn't summarizing an author's words take away the power of the original source?
  6. What exactly counts as common knowledge?
  7. How do I meet the page length or word requirement without repeating myself?

 



1. My instructor tells me I need to use in-text citations. How do I do that?

An MLA in-text citation typically involves two things: a signal phrase and a parenthetical reference. A signal phrase names the author of the borrowed material. The author's name is followed by an active verb that adequately describes the mood in which the borrowed material was written. The following example demonstrates this:

Groucho Marx jokes, "I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception" (30).

Notice that the signal verb is formed in the present tense. This is the convention in MLA. This example also includes what is called a parenthetical reference. A parenthetical reference follows the borrowed information and indicates where it can be found in the original source. If the original source is not paginated, a parenthetical reference may not be required.

An APA in-text citation looks very similar except it will also include the year of publication. The same example in APA format would look like this:

Groucho Marx (1936) joked, "I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception" (p. 30).

Note that the year of publication will immediately follow the author's name and is enclosed in parentheses. In addition, the signal verb is formed in the past tense and the abbreviation "p." precedes the page number.

Remember: signal verbs should be used most of the time. Including a signal verb in addition to a parenthetical reference helps avoid a common mistake, the dropped quotation. A dropped quotation occurs when writers fail to attach their own words to quoted material. Dropped quotations should be avoided because they can be confusing or jarring to readers.

 



2. I'm writing a paper. Do I need a thesis statement?

Since a "thesis" is the central or unifying idea of a paper, it is safe to assume that, if you're writing a college-level paper, a thesis is needed.

A thesis is often described as "central" or "unifying" because it is the main idea you're trying to demonstrate or prove over the course of your paper. Now, depending on what type of paper you're asked to write, you could use different types of evidence to prove your thesis (e.g. you could use personal experience for a reflection paper or scholarly research for an argument paper). Regardless of what type of evidence you're using, you should have something to say about what this evidence shows. This--the thing you have to say--is your thesis.

In most academic writing, you should go one step further and not just have a really great idea but put this really great idea into a concise sentence (or two); this is known as a thesis statement. A well-written thesis statement can do a lot. It provides a road map to the reader to let her know where you're headed, justifies the different moves or points you're going to be making with your evidence, and serves as a reminder to yourself of what it is you are trying to say.

If writing a thesis statement still seems unnecessary, keep this in mind: even a short paragraph will have a pseudo thesis statement, or a sentence that declares what the main idea of the paragraph is about. It's called a topic sentence. (And, if you still need convincing that all writing can benefit from a thesis, consider the response to this question. The first sentence provides a concise answer to the FAQ question and the following paragraphs provide evidence to support the main claim.)

So, no matter what you're writing for class -- reflection essays, longer research papers, or fiction stories -- a strong thesis will help make your writing more clear to both you and your reader.

 



3. I never know what to write in my conclusion. Do I just say the same stuff I said in the introduction?

A conclusion is the best place in your paper to bring your thesis and support together to leave a lasting impression on the reader.

To write a successful conclusion, you might want to:

  • Gracefully reiterate the thesis and refer to the main points. To avoid repetition, bring together the elements of your paper to make the reader think.
  • Call for action. For example, if your paper is about the exploitation of diamond miners, you could argue for stronger laws against trafficking.
  • Call for more research. Showing the need for further research--either from the scientific community or from society in general--can tie your points together while showing gaps in current knowledge.
  • Identify limitations. This is particularly important if you're writing about research or claiming something big.
  • Avoid bringing up something totally new. Conclusions work best when they use material already in the paper.

As with most aspects of writing, conclusion styles vary by discipline and instructor. It's worthwhile to ask your instructor what he or she values in a conclusion.

 



4. Do I need in-text citations when I'm summarizing or paraphrasing?

Yes. Although summarizing and paraphrasing means using your own words, you still need to give credit to other people's ideas. This establishes credibility for you as a writer by showing your awareness of the scholarly field and giving credit where it's due.

If someone else used your idea or story, you'd want that person to acknowledge the source! Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine telling your friend a funny story about your cat getting its claws stuck in the window screen. A week later you show up at his birthday party, only to hear him telling the same story to his guests, passing off the punch line as his own. You can also imagine the guests' reaction when they discover that he took credit for your creative and funny storytelling. That would be one awkward party.

In our culture, we highly value original ideas. When we use others' ideas or words without giving them credit, we damage our credibility and risk serious academic consequences. Good scholars are careful to give credit to others, while adding their own words and ideas to the academic conversation.

 



5. Why shouldn't I quote all the time? Doesn't summarizing an author's words take away the power of the original source?

It's true that quotes, when used effectively, can strengthen an essay. However, it's also important that you remain in control of your paper. One way to do this is to limit the number of direct quotes you use.

Part of your job when writing a paper that incorporates research is to show that you have fully understood the research you have done. In other words, your paper should sound like you (albeit a highly professional, grammar-savvy version of you)--not a mash-up of a bunch of different writers. When you cram your paper full of too many quotes, your ideas and voice tend to get lost, and the result may be a paper that feels incoherent and choppy.

So when should you quote? There are some specific situations when directly quoting rather than summarizing or paraphrasing a source makes sense:

  • Use quotes to add authority to your argument. When someone important--a well-known authority or leading expert on the topic you are writing about--has made a strong statement in support of your position, quoting that source can lend weight to your own argument.
  • Use quotes that will grab your reader's attention. Sometimes a source will phrase something in such a striking way that it will really stand out to you. The line may be catchy, funny, or use unique and colorful language. In some way, it "pops"--it jumps out at you and sticks with you. It makes sense to directly quote lines like this in your paper; if they grabbed your attention, they'll likely grab your reader's attention as well.
  • Quote a source when you can't possibly paraphrase or summarize it. Sometimes a source may say something using such concise or specific wording, you can't possibly rephrase it without losing clarity or adding too many unnecessary words. In these cases, it is Okay to quote. Still, make sure to use quotes sparingly at all times. Do not over-quote out of laziness.

In short, always quote with a purpose. Have a clear idea of why you are quoting, or what the quote adds to your paper. Avoid lengthy quotes, and try to work each quote directly into your own sentence rather than plunking it down in a paragraph. Remember, you are the ultimate authority in your essay. You're the one your professor wants to hear from. Don't let the chatter of too many other authors drown you out!

 



6. What exactly counts as common knowledge?

Common knowledge is information that most of your readers already know or can easily find in multiple credible sources. Common knowledge includes generally agreed upon facts or historical events. For example, "Portland is located in Oregon" and "Barack Obama is President of the United States" are facts that are considered common knowledge. Generally, you do not need to cite common knowledge. If you are unsure whether or not something is common knowledge, go ahead and cite the information to avoid plagiarism or ask your instructor for guidance.

 



7. How do I meet the page length or word requirement without repeating myself?

It may seem counter-intuitive, but usually when we struggle to meet length requirements, it is because our topic is too broad. Imagine your essay as a map. A globe shows very little detail, but a Google map of your neighborhood shows every nook and cranny. It can do that because it covers a smaller space. Narrowing the focus of the essay creates more room for us to slow down and be specific.

For example, if you are writing a paper about, say, the death penalty, you might quickly discover that there isn't that much to say beyond the general. Some people think it's bad. Some people think it's good. They both have excellent reasons. However, if you narrow your thesis question to "Why have more people been executed in the state of Texas in the last twenty years than in all other states with the death penalty?" you suddenly have a specific place, a specific time, a cast of characters, and a lively real world argument. Abstractions don't take up nearly the same amount of space as careful analysis, and analysis requires detail, research, and careful evidence.