To Quote or Not To Quote?

by Morgan Mallory

Quoting, in a sense, is the easiest part of writing a paper: someone else already did the writing! Deciding what to quote, however, can often be a challenge for writers. Then again, deciding what to paraphrase—what not to quote—is an equally important skill. How do you choose what to quote, what to paraphrase, how it all fits in with your argument? Is there a minimum or maximum number of quotes a good paragraph should have?

There are no hard-and-fast rules about what to quote, when to quote, and how much to quote. However, for the majority of the analytical writing you will do at Harvard, I have designed a few simple guidelines about when to quote. I have based these rules on my experience as a History concentrator, so note that my rules might work better for someone in the humanities than someone in the sciences.


1. Quote what you cannot paraphrase effectively.
For most details you cite in a paper, you should paraphrase (succinctly rephrase it in your own words). Paraphrasing is an essential and often underutilized tool that every writer must embrace. If you can say it just as well yourself, paraphrase! Note that you must still cite everything that you paraphrase. Never waste space with an unnecessary quote.

If you can’t paraphrase it, then quote it. If there are specific words in your source that are essential to your analysis (in other words, something that you “close read” to tease out the meaning; or in history, lines from a primary source that you wish to analyze as evidence), then by all means quote! Or, if you are bringing in the argument of another scholar, it can be good to quote their main argument in their own words before engaging with it.

2. Quote only what you wish to analyze.
A quote should always be analyzed. A quote is evidence for your argument, but never assume your reader (or grader) will understand why the quote is good evidence; you must explain how or why it supports your argument. Never leave a quote dangling. As a rule of thumb, do not end paragraphs with quotes, because this usually means the quote has not been analyzed. Again, assume the meaning of the quote and its relevance is unclear to the reader, even if it seems like the most obvious connection in the world to you.

A note on block quotes: watch out! Do not abuse the block quote. A block quote may only be justified if the entire thing is then analyzed. If a good portion of your block quote is not analysis material, you should narrow it down to the most important parts and quote just those parts.

3. Your voice, not the voices of others.
There is no exact amount of quotes that should be in a body paragraph. The number of quotes varies from paragraph to paragraph, and from discipline to discipline. English papers, for instance, tend to quote more than psychology papers since they are often rooted in analysis of texts. The important thing to remember is that your voice should always be stronger than any other voices represented in your paper. Then, use your words to set up the necessary context (through paraphrasing), to analyze, and to transition from paragraph to paragraph.

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