Using Sources | Webster University

Using Sources

When you are required to conduct research and to use sources to develop and support your ideas, one of the primary questions that you run into is how to use source material appropriately and to the best effect. Depending on the style guide of the project (APA, MLA, Chicago, …), different conventions and expectations are needed for using source material. The use of direct quotations, for instance, may be encouraged or discouraged. MLA is used for English courses and discussing literature—using quotes to illustrate a point about an author’s characters or words is probably a requirement as quotes capture the nuances of the author’s meaning and language choices; paraphrasing could change the fine details of the passage. For APA, however, direct quotations are discouraged in favor of paraphrasing to help illustrate your analysis of the material. Keep this variation in mind when choosing how to use source material in a project. Above all, though, the main objective for using source material is to know when to use it, how to use it properly, and when to back away from using sources.

Before the nuances of source use are tackled, though, you should consider one vital tip: draft as much of the discussion as possible before trying to incorporate sources. Having a solid rough draft of ideas first will make using source material much more logical and balanced. When you try to write down your ideas at the same time as source material, source misuse or other inappropriate results can occur. To avoid this, have a substantial draft of ideas before turning to sources for support.

Employ Quotation Marks

One of the most overlooked issues in using source material is a tiny piece of punctuation: the quotation mark. The quotation mark is all that stands between saying, “This is something someone else said” and this is something I say. Any project is assessed with the expectation that everything inside that project is your words, ideas, images, and collective personal work, regardless of form or medium, unless noted otherwise. The only way the reader can separate your words from the source’s words is quotation marks. A citation will indicate that the idea was generated by someone else, but a sentence without quotation marks tells the reader that the wording was changed (paraphrased). If the wording isn’t different from the source and simply lacks quotation marks, this can get you into trouble. Why do this when adding two simple pieces of punctuation could have avoided the whole situation? This can be a typing error, but often it’s carelessness. Anytime you copy/paste material or type material directly from a page, instead of putting the quotation marks in later, put them in first. By drafting ideas and using empty quotation marks as a placeholder for a quote to add later, then this mistake is quickly and easily avoided.

Quotations also require citation. See the citation guides for instruction of how to cite properly.

Use Quotes Logically

You will often find source ideas that you feel should be included in your discussion; when ideas contribute to the point easily, that makes using source material more effective. Sometimes, however, you feel forced or required to use source material, and when this happens, quotations are sometimes not used as logically or clearly as they should be. You may instead find a quote, any quote, to add to the paper, regardless of whether that quote is appropriate to the discussion. When you find an idea that you need to incorporate into your discussion, the first step is to do so in a logical place. What idea or point is the quote about? Where is that idea touched on in the project? A quote should never be shoved or forced into any spot in the essay. Instead, adding a quote requires careful consideration of where and how as well as transitions to and from the source’s words. To use a quote most effectively in a paragraph, there should be at least one sentence before the quote that introduces the topic or idea that is relevant to the quote. Then, integrate the quote as part of a grammatically clear sentence (see below for methods of integrating quotes). After the quote is presented, evaluate the significance of the point revealed and/or link this to the next idea. With this sort of three-sentence model, quotes are tied logically into the paragraph and not left stranded or forced.

Note: quotes should never be used to begin or end a paragraph. A paragraph should begin with your transition or topic sentence, which can’t be conveyed by someone else’s words or ideas. Similarly, the end of a paragraph needs to be wrapped up with your discussion of how or why that passage was relevant to the main idea; this can’t be done with a quote or someone else’s ideas.

Integrate Quotes

Quoted material needs to be joined with your sentence or point. A quote cannot stand alone as a sentence by itself; this is often called a disembodied or dropped quote. Consider the passage below, which utilizes material from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”:

Edgar Allan Poe depicts Fortunato as a fool. His jester costume and belled cap literally paint him as foolish, but his behavior reinforces this. “The wine sparkled in his eyes and the bells jingled” (334). Fortunato’s excessive drinking and the merry ringing of his hat illustrate that this character is neither serious nor responsible.

The indicated sentence is an example of how a quotation shouldn’t be used in a discussion. Instead, the sentence needs to start with your words and link grammatically into the quoted passage:

Edgar Allan Poe depicts Fortunato as a fool. His jester costume and belled cap literally paint him as foolish, but his behavior reinforces this. As Fortunato travels through the catacombs, “The wine sparkle[s] in his eyes and the bells [jingle]” (334).Fortunato’s excessive drinking and the merry ringing of his hat illustrate that this character is neither serious nor responsible.

With the phrase “As Fortunato travels through the catacombs,” you have blended the quote into wording of her own that provides context and a strong link between your idea and the quoted passage. This sort of integration should be the goal for all quoted material and can be achieved through a variety of methods:

  1. Start the sentence with an introductory phrase that gives context. The example above uses this method. Other common examples of this are to say “According to X” or “X says/notes/observes/....” This method is probably one of the easiest, but it can also be overused or become repetitive if this is the only method you use.
  2. Use a complete sentence and a colon to lead into the quoted material. The primary rule for using a colon is that the part prior to the colon must be a complete sentence; what comes after may be a list, a single word, or an entire sentence. Using the passage above, instead of adding the introductory phrase “As Fortunato travels through the catacombs,” you could simply change the period of the previous sentence to a colon. This is an effective and often easy way to integrate quotes, if the colon is used correctly.
  3. Take just a portion of the quoted material that can be inserted into your sentence grammatically. This can be more challenging than other methods, but the reward is that it is often the most successful and natural use of quoted material.

Original text (from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”): At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely settled—but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved, precluded the idea of risk.

Integrated quote: Montresor’s deliberation and care in his plot for revenge required that he enact his plan “at length” instead of immediately (330).

Integrated quote: Montresor’s “very definitiveness with which [being avenged] was resolved” leads him to make elaborate plans to hasten Fortunato’s fate (330).

In each of these methods, the key is that the sentence begins with your own words or with some sort of context to lead into the quoted material. Aim for this with each quotation used, and ideally use variety in the methods of integration to promote a more engaging style and flow.

Using Ellipses and Brackets with Quotes

In the process of integrating quotes into a passage of your own words, a conflict in grammar may occur or a situation may arise where only a piece of the quote is needed instead of the whole. These situations call for minor adjustments to the quoted material; however, a quotation must represents the source’s exact wording. Through the use of an ellipsis (…) or square brackets [like so], you can indicate when a quote has been adjusted.

In the examples above, some of the quotations were adjusted slightly from the original using brackets. Brackets are used to make any adjustment to the source’s exact wording (including adding ellipsis, discussed below). The most common call for brackets is to change the tense of a word, change pronouns, or to add/clarify words in the original. See the examples below, which utilize quotes from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Matching tense

Original text: The wine sparkled in his eyes and the bells jingled.

Adjusted wording: As Fortunato travels through the catacombs, “The wine sparkle[s] in his eyes and the bells [jingle]” (334).

Discussion: Your sentence is in present tense (as required for discussing literature), which conflicts with the past tense of the quote. To ensure the grammar flows and proper tense is maintained throughout, past tense “sparkled” is adjusted by changing the d to an s, with brackets around that one letter since that was all that was adjusted. For “jingled”, the adjustment is a little different since the tense correction requires the word “jingle.” Since you need to remove a letter but not add anything in return, brackets around the whole word note that the word was changed to “jingle.”

Changing pronouns

Original text: The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could.

Adjusted wording: Montresor suffers Fortunato’s behavior “as best [he] could” (330).

Original text: He had a weak point.

Adjusted wording: Montresor claims, “[Fortunato] had a weak point” (330).

Discussion: In the context of the discussion, a particular pronoun (he, she, it, they, …) may not be clear or may not work with the grammar of the sentence. For example, Montresor as the subject would conflict with a subject of “I” as used in the original text. Stating Montresor in third person requires a third person pronoun, in this case “he.” Brackets can be used to change the pronoun to a more grammatical or clear choice. In the second example, clarity is key. The pronoun “he” could be unclear or taken out of context, so the quoted sentence illustrates that “he” actually refers to Fortunato.

Clarifying words

Original text: I have received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado.

Adjusted wording: Montresor claims that he has “a pipe [cask or barrel] of what passes for Amontillado” (331).

Discussion: A source may use a particular word or term that’s not commonly understood (or may part of a specific technical lexicon). Brackets can be used to add a clarification of the term if a definition is vital to understanding the point. Use this sparingly as most college-level audiences will understand even specific terminology.

These are just a few common examples of how to amend a quote when necessary. Be sure to use brackets any time the source’s words are adjusted in any way, including when an ellipsis is employed. Ellipses are necessary when a quote is selected but some of the wording in the middle of the quote needs to be removed, either for clarity or conciseness. Ellipses aren’t needed to start or end a quote, only to remove material from the middle of one that’s already begun.

Original text: You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat.

Adjusted wording: Montresor directly addresses the reader and insists, “You […] will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat” (330).

Discussion: The point you are making doesn’t necessarily need the section of the text that says “who so well know the nature of my soul,” so to make the quote more concise and focused, the material is removed, with brackets around the adjustment to show the ellipsis is your omission. This is an important distinction because the author of the original text could utilize ellipses of his own, so this illustrates that the omission is done by you and not Poe.

Both an ellipsis and brackets should be used to help ensure that a quote is not only clear to the reader but also grammatically correct. However, if you find that brackets need to be employed too often, it may be a good idea to reconsider how the quote is integrated to see if more of the original text can be utilized without the need for adjustment. Don’t change quotes unnecessarily.

Appropriate Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is a common requirement in a research paper, and unfortunately it can often take a lot of work to do successfully and in a way that avoids plagiarism. To get a handle on paraphrasing, the first step it to understand that paraphrasing can’t be done halfway. A source’s words are either changed thoroughly or they aren’t. This total restatement of the source’s words needs to happen on two levels:

1) Word choice—you may understand that the words of the source need to be changed in a paraphrase. However, where you can get confused is the amount of change that needs to take place. It’s not enough to change just one or two key words. It’s not enough to change most of the words. The entire passage needs to be re-worded with phrases and vocabulary choices that are normal for you. Naturally, there are some exceptions to this: basic words that are required by grammar that don’t have easy alternatives (a, the, and, but), proper nouns (names, organizations, places), dates or other numbers, and similar information that can’t really be presented naturally in different words. These exceptions shouldn’t occur that often, though, so be aware that nearly everything else in the passage will need to change completely. In this process, you must also change the wording logically and grammatically. If words are selected that are not quite appropriate to the meaning or that don’t fit with the style/vocabulary of the rest of the paper, then the paraphrase will either be awkward or inappropriate. This is why simply dropping in synonyms or using a thesaurus can get you into trouble—see the example in the next section for an illustration of this point.

2) Sentence structure—this aspect of paraphrasing is frequently overlooked. Changing the word choice (for instance, switching “effectively” to “accurately”) is something you may understand should be done when paraphrasing. However, leaving the structure of the sentence the same is not effective source use and does constitute an integrity issue. Compare these two sentences:

Original source: Issues in academic integrity plague universities and schools.

Incorrect paraphrase: Concerns in scholarly honesty afflict educational facilities.

This sentence is problematic in a few ways. First, read the “incorrect” sentence: Concerns in scholarly honesty afflict educational facilities. Does that sentence flow naturally and effectively? Not particularly (see the word choice section). More importantly, while the word choice has changed, the basic structure of the sentence is identical. Keeping the same sentence structure and simply changing the word choice falls under the umbrella of academic dishonesty, particularly because the meaning is identical in both sentences. This imitates or maintains the writing style and structure chosen by the original author, and imitating style can be just as problematic as word choice. What is most problematic with this type of inadequate paraphrasing, though, is that this use of source material doesn’t demonstrate your understanding of the concept. Only when you can fully place the idea into a sentence of your own creation will you illustrate your understanding of the point. Synonym replacement doesn’t achieve this.

To avoid improper paraphrasing in an assignment, both of these measures must be met. A common reason that paraphrasing isn’t done appropriately (aside from not changing the sentence structure) is that you will attempt to paraphrase by staring directly at the passage you want to change. It’s extremely difficult to change a passage thoroughly while staring down the original; the only words in your mind will be the ones on the page of the original. A method of avoiding this is to read the material to be paraphrased. Then wait a few hours (or even better, a day). Sit down—away from the material to be paraphrased—and write the idea from memory, without looking at the original. What is written should be phrased clearly enough but in your own style and word choice. Check the wording against the original to be sure that it’s different enough, though. If so, then the paraphrase will likely be successful.

Paraphrases also require citation. See the citation guides for instruction on how to cite properly.

Examples of Correct Source Use

The following examples illustrate a number of appropriate uses of source material. First, look at the original, an excerpt from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Source: Kennedy, John K. “Inaugural Address.” Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Ed. Lawrence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982. Print. [Note: this citation and the others used in these examples are done in MLA style.]

Quoting the Source

As John F. Kennedy passionately proclaims, America "shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty" (76).

Why is this correct? The writer identifies the author in a signal phrase, encloses a direct quotation (the source’s exact words) within quotation marks, and provides a page number for documentation.

Paraphrasing the Source

In his Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy describes how America will do everything in its power to make sure that liberty prevails (76).

Why is this correct? The writer has identified the author, has put his idea into her own words, and has provided a page number for documentation. The paraphrase completely revises the original wording and presents the idea in an entirely different way.

Quoting and Paraphrasing the Source Together

In his Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy describes how America will do everything in its power — “pay any price, bear any burden” — to make sure that liberty prevails (76).

Why is this correct? The writer has identified the author, has put most of this idea into her own words, has enclosed the source’s words that she wanted to leave in within quotation marks, and has provided a page number for documentation.

[Examples adapted from Teresa Sweeney’s Feb. 2004 discussion by Laura Hardin Marshall, Plagiarism Prevention Program Specialist, Sep. 2015]

When Not to Use Sources

A key aspect of using sources appropriately is knowing when enough is enough. You sometimes overuse source material, which creates issues with the development of the discussion. When an instructor assigns an essay, the expectation is for the essay to be your discussion. If source material takes up too much of the discussion, even when used properly, then your voice and ideas are lost. A good goal to consider for a research project is to limit source use to only 20% of the project. To evaluate how much of the discussion relies on source material, it helps to highlight or color-code all quotations and paraphrases. This will give you a clearer visual of how much of the essay is devoted to source material. For a more specific accounting, look at the total work count of the project. Then take an accounting of the word count of all quotes and paraphrases. The source word count divided by the total word count will indicate what specific percentage of the essay is source material.

Another crucial way for you to assess your use of source material is to read the essay or passage without the quotes or paraphrases. This is another case where highlighting or color-coding quotations and paraphrases is helpful. Read the paragraph or passage in question. Then go back and read it again, this time skipping over the source material. Does the passage still make sense? Is the point made clearly and does the paragraph still have a clear and logical structure (transitions, topic sentences, wrap up of the passage, etc.)? If the passage isn’t effective without the source material, then this indicates the passage overuses research. Quotes and paraphrases are supposed to enhance and support your own ideas and discoveries; don’t let sources take over. To make sure that a paragraph is well developed on its own, consult the Sentences & Paragraphs section of the Writing Tips

Updated Nov. 2015 by Laura Hardin Marshall


Writing Center Hours


40 Loretto Hall
(314) 246-8644


Regular Semester Hours:

9 am–7 pm


9 am–4:30 pm


1 pm–4 pm


(Webster University Library)


Writing Center Summer Term:

Monday & Wednesday
10 am–7 pm


Tuesday, Thursday, & Friday
10 am–4:30 pm



Click here to schedule an appointment. For hours during breaks and inter-sessions, call (314) 246-8644