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Tips for the ThM – Part 14 (good quotes)

It’s been a while since I’ve written on Tips for the ThM (you can see a roundup of the first 11 here). Today I’d like to comment on something that most students do frequently and, on occasion, badly – quoting.

Here’s a principle that you should always keep in mind when quoting: the quote should have a clear purpose. Your reader should not be left with the impression that you used a quote simply because you had an interesting quote and you needed something to do with it.

So, what are some of the purposes that a quote can serve?

  1. You want to demonstrate that your arguments/ideas have support in the academic community. There are times, particularly when you are offering a new, unusual, or unfamiliar argument, when you will want to establish that you are not completely on your own. So,  you’ll appeal to another authority to prove that you have support. Quotations like this do not advance your argument in any way (more on this in a moment), but they can provide some needed credibility to keep your reader on board with what you’re doing.
  2. You need to establish an idea that you want to use in your argument, but one that you will not be establishing yourself. For example, suppose that I’m writing a paper on Augustine’s epistemology and I believe it to be reasonably well established that his epistemology is essentially neoplatonic. Since I think this is well established, I don’t want to waste my time arguing for it. Instead, I’ll quote a recognized authority to establish that this is the case, and then move on to what my argument is about. Of course, in doing so I set myself up to the possibility that someone will disagree on whether this is actually a well-established point, but such is life.
  3. You are providing material for critique. If you are going to go into an extended discussion of why someone is wrong, you will usually want to offer enough of a quote to establish that he or she actually holds the position that you are critiquing.
  4. Similarly, you need to establish that a person actually did say what you claim. If I’m going to claim that Calvin taught an unlimited atonement, I had better be able to demonstrate some ground for that claim. Having said that, though, you need to be careful with this one. Students often overuse quotes in this category, particularly in historical papers. A summary of a person’s ideas and/or a simple reference will usually suffice. Typically, you only need to offer more if your claim is surprising and more than a simple reference seems warranted. Otherwise, unless you have some other purpose for the quote, leave it out.
  5. You found someone saying exactly what you want to say, but they said it much better than you can. Use this one very sparingly. Don’t use quotes as a way of letting someone else do your work for you. You’re the author and you need to make the argument in your own voice or the argument will not be compelling to your reader. Granted, you will occasionally find that truly outstanding quote that provides just the right rhetorical flourish for what you want to accomplish. Fine. Use it. Just don’t do it very often.

With those purposes in mind, here are some of the mistakes that I often run into:

  1. Quotes that have no clear purpose. Again, know what you’re doing with your quote and how it advances/supports your argument. And, I’d put in this same category quotes that are really unnecessary because a simple reference would have sufficed.
  2. Quotes that are too long. There are times when an exceptionally long quote is necessary (e.g. you are going to interact with the whole quote in an extended critique). But I find that it is usually more effective to provide a good summary that bog the reader down with an extended quote. So, before you use a long quote, make sure that the entire quote has a good purpose to serve.
  3. Quotes that serve to shortcut good argumentation. This is among the more common and frustrating problems (in all kinds of writing). Quotation is not a replacement for argumentation. As I mentioned above, you can use a quote to demonstrate that you have supporters, and a good quote can establish and idea that you’ll use in your argument, but a quote cannot prove that you are right. You have to establish that through the course of your argument.
  4. And, finally, quotes that seem to be there just for the sake of quoting. I think we do this for three reasons. First, we’ve done a lot of research and we hate to see it go to waste. So, we’re going to find a place to stick all those quotes if it kills us. Second, we think we need a lot of quotes to prove that we’ve done our research. Third, we quote to show off (i.e. see how much I’ve read). And, none of them are necessary. In academic writing, you do need to establish that you’ve done adequate research, but that’s why God made footnotes. And, you don’t need to stick every last bit of research into your paper. Do enough to show that you’ve done your homework, and trust that the quality of your research will come across in the quality of your argument. And we all need to stop showing off. We should just recognize that we have not now nor will we ever have read as much as we think we should or as much as we think other people have.