Do you want to impress your teacher with the quality of your writing? One (relatively) easy way to do so is to change the way you handle in-text citations. Read on to learn more!
What is In-Text Citation?
As I discussed in Pointing to Each Other: Citation Basics, in-text citations are half of a citation pair that tells your reader where you got your information. In-text citations appear within the body of your paper, in your sentences and paragraphs. Not every citation style uses in-text citation; some use footnotes. This post focuses exclusively on in-text citation.
Anatomy of an In-Text Citation
The in-text citation exists to “point” your reader toward the full reference in your reference list at the end of your paper. Although the format varies by citation style, in-text citations commonly include the following information:
- Name of the author(s), editor(s), translator(s), or entity that authored the work
- Date of publication
- Page number for where the material you used came from
If you aren’t familiar with the citation style you’re using (see Before You Begin and How to read an assignment sheet and rubric for help on where to look to find out), it’s best to record all of this information as you’re writing your first draft. You can always modify a citation later, but I know from experience how miserable it is to dig through your notes, trying at the last minute to figure out where material came from.
In-text citations commonly appear between parentheses – these things: ( ). An in-text citation might look like this: (Smith, 2017)
or this: (Smith 2017, p 3).
Don’t worry that it looks weird or seems to mess up the flow of reading. It’s accepted academic style and you will get used to it.
The last section of this post has examples of different ways to use in-text citation.
Where Do I Put the In-Text Citation?
The in-text citation should appear as close to the material you borrowed from that sources as possible. Often, students have one citation per paragraph – at the end. That means that all of the material in that paragraph was summarized, paraphrased, or quoted from a single source. If you have more than one source in a sentence or paragraph, cite before you change sources. You can cite mid-sentence if your source changes. See Citing Sources: When do I have to cite? for more on this.
How Can I Take My Writing to Another Level and Impress My Teachers?
Most students write a paragraph or more of material, all coming from the same source, and then stick a citation at the end of their use of that source or at best, at the end of each paragraph. Then they move on to the next source, and the next, and so on.
This telegraphs to your teacher that the student lacks finesse with their writing, and that they didn’t take the time to really understand the material and make it their own. They are simply regurgitating, and without much flair.
You can make your paper stand out just by integrating the material you use in a more sophisticated manner. First, start by taking the time to read the material, think about how best to present it, and plan to weave it together instead of writing about one source at a time. Then, think about how you cite.
When they use quotations, many students just write the entire quote as a separate sentence and provide the quotation at the end. This is a horrible approach – if you do this, stop it! Quotes should always be integrated into your own sentence, even if your integration is as minimal as
According to so-and-so, “quoting is a difficult thing to do” (citation, year).
Here’s an example from my own writing:
Theorists that study the influence of emotion on social cohesion break social cohesion into two components: (1) the relational component, which is easily observable, measures “observed connections among members of the collectivity,” and is often employed in network theory, and (2) the ideational component, which, in contrast, concerns the subjective sense of belonging within a group (Moody and White 2003:104-05)—the attractions and attachments toward the group, per Friedkin (2004).
Notice that I felt I had to quote a bit, but that I only quoted the little I had to, and I worked it into my own sentence. Also notice that there are two citations here: Moody and White, published in 2003, the quote coming from pages 104-105, and Friedkin, published in 2004. The reader can clearly see that the material on relational and ideational components came from Moody and White, and that mention of attractions and attachments came from Friedkin. In my writing, I am making an argument for pulling the two ideas together, and I am in control of the material being presented through the way that I present it. In other words, I don’t let the material control me – I control the material.
In-text citations generally include at least the author’s name and year of publication, and sometimes page numbers. Students usually just put all of this information at the end of the sentence, within the required parentheses, like this:
Benjamin Franklin is often credited as having discovered electricity (Name, Year). But history disagrees: Franklin didn’t discover electricity; he was conducting an experiment about electricity as it was already known (Name, Year). This type of structure gets really predictable and boring and is what nearly every paper looks like (Name, Year).
The name, year, and page number are elements of the citation that can go almost anywhere. Consider:
In his 1953 article, Smith concluded that Franklin was not the inventor of electricity.
No parenthesis are necessary, unless the style demands page numbers. In that case, the end of the sentence would look like this: “inventor of electricity (33).”
Smith (1953) concluded that Franklin was not the inventor of electricity.
In some cases it’s advantageous to name the author in the text. Do this if the author is well-known, maybe even a founder in the field, or someone that made an important advancement in the field. Do this if you are presenting two sides to an argument in the field. In other words, only use this approach if throwing around the author’s name is going to matter. Likewise, only use the date in the sentence if it’s important. For example:
Writing in 1987, Jones claimed that one could not know how HIV was spread, and that no cure would ever be found. Modern medicine, however, has advanced our understanding and care of HIV/AIDS . . . As of 2018, according to researchers at Johns-Hopkins, . . . (Author, Year).
In the above, the date is important because it helps to show how things change over time.
In other words, if highlighting the information, like the author’s name, the institution sponsoring the research (i.e. “In a report published by the National Bureau of Labor Statistics . . .”), or the date will help make your point, then include it as part of your sentence and exclude it from the in-text citation. You’ve already told the reader what they need to know and don’t need to repeat it.
Rarely, if ever, will page numbers be something you need to highlight. Consider this sentence:
On pages 55 through 58 of his 1987 report, Jones wrote about the lack of understanding for how HIV was transmitted at the time.
This sentence is informative, but very awkward.
Consider this sentence, in contrast:
The need to develop an understanding of how HIV is transmitted was so important to Jones that he broached the topic on page 1 (1987).
But adding “page 1 of his 1987 report” just starts to sound awkward, because the date is not the important element in this example.
It’s fine to simply cite at the end of the sentence. But if you edit even a small portion of your paper to include some of the citation information in your sentences, your paper will read better.
Combining Ideas from Multiple Sources
Showing your teacher that you read and understood the material – that’s just a good look. If you’re combining two very different ideas, then follow the example from my own writing that I gave in the Quotes section, above. But what if a bunch of people said something similar? In that case, you would include all of the authors in one citation.
Here’s another example from my own work:
Lawler and colleagues, for example, developed the theory of relational cohesion over a series of several articles to explain the role emotion plays in building social cohesion (Lawler 2001; Lawler 2002; Lawler, Thye and Yoon 2000; Lawler, Thye and Yoon 2008; Lawler and Yoon 1996:89).
How you organize the authors depends on your citation style. You’ll want to consult your handbook.
Note: if you use a quotation from one of these sources, you will want to place the in-text citation near the quotation and the rest at the end of the sentence.
Practice Makes P . . . well, Better!
Start practicing some of these techniques until they become habit. You’ll see the sophistication level of your writing improve and your teachers will notice, which should – if you have handled your writing appropriately in other ways – lead to better grades.
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This post is one in a series about citation. Check out the next one: Citing Sources: Building your Reference List!