Whenever I’m writing a paper, I know I’m getting tired when I start putting in tons of quotations with very little of my own writing and analysis in between. As a teacher, I encounter quotation overload in the classroom as well. Students sometimes turn in drafts that resemble a patchwork quilt of quotations rather than a cohesive argument of their own. What is a block quotation? It’s simply a quotation that is long. If you’re quoting a short passage, you put the text in quotation marks. If, however, the quoted portion is longer than four full typed lines, use a block quotation instead: indent the passage, don’t use quotation marks, and cite your source at the end, either with a footnote or a parenthetical citation.

So, how to avoid block quote overload? Read on for a few simple guidelines that will help you use sources and evidence more effectively in your papers.

When should I quote?

How do you decide between quoting and paraphrasing? Let’s say you’re using a secondary source, such as a book by a well-known historian. Ask yourself:

  • Is the excerpt especially clever, perfectly worded, or otherwise notable for its language and phrasing?
  • Has the author coined new words or phrases that I wish to apply in my own paper?
  • Is the author’s point very complex, convoluted, or liable to misinterpretation? Do readers need to know exactly what this author argues to understand the rest of my paper?

What about primary sources, such as a historical legal document that provides direct evidence for your argument? Ask yourself:

  • Am I analyzing the specific language the author uses? Am I providing a close reading of the passage’s rhetorical devices, tone, diction, or syntax?
  • Is the excerpt especially colorful? Will it add interest or flavor to my paper?
  • Am I using the quotation to make a point that may otherwise be confusing, overly complex, or controversial? Does my reader need to understand exactly what this primary source material contains to be on board with my argument?

If you answer “yes” to any of the above questions, quoting is probably the best option. Otherwise, use your own words.

In general, I tend to quote from primary sources much more frequently than secondary. Primary sources are, after all, the raw material of history. They’re colorful, they’re interesting, and they often require more detailed unpacking. As for secondary source authors (other modern scholars), I prefer to paraphrase or summarize their arguments in my own words. This practice helps me avoid creating a Frankenstein’s monster of a paper, and also lets me be clear about how others’ research supports, challenges, or relates to mine.

So, perhaps you’ve asked yourself the above questions and determined that direct quotations are not necessary. Now what?

Learn to paraphrase.

Put the original author’s text into your own words. A good paraphrase requires you to understand fully the meaning of the original source and convey it using your own, original language.

You can actually use a plagiarism checker like Quetext as a shortcut for diagnosing block quote excess and assessing how well you’ve paraphrased. Does 50% of your paper come back as “plagiarized” due to tons of block quotations? It’s probably time to trim those back: paraphrase or summarize instead of quoting, and don’t forget to add your own thoughts, opinions, and analysis. The majority of your paper should be your own words.

When attempting to paraphrase, students sometimes just swap out a few words for synonyms without changing much about the original text’s wording. That’s not paraphrasing, and a sophisticated anti-plagiarism program will know. Keep revising your paraphrase until it truly registers as a unique sentence or passage in its own right. Finally, remember that whether you quote, paraphrase, or summarize someone else’s ideas, you should always cite the original source.

How should I incorporate quotations into my paper?

Now what if you’ve decided that you should quote a particular passage? This section will help you use quotations effectively.

You may have heard the term “quotation sandwich” from a high school English teacher or Writing 101 professor. The quotation is the meat or filling of the sandwich. It’s not enough on its own. Each quotation needs further context and analysis on either side of it (like two slices of bread). Here’s how to incorporate quotations into your paper:

1. Introduce the quotation.

Supply the quotation’s background context. What kind of work is it from: a book, letter, speech, poem, film? When, where, and by whom was the source created? Include any background information you think is essential for understanding the quotation.

2. Insert the quotation itself.

Pretty self-explanatory. Make sure to cite your source!

3. Discuss the quotation’s significance.

You had a reason for quoting this text, right? Explain that reason to your reader. How does it support your main argument? What does it tell readers about the topic of your paper? Why is it interesting?

And that’s it!

Your quotations should now be judiciously chosen and well-integrated into a cohesive paper.