Dear Patchwork Writer,
You might not have any idea why I just called you a “patchwork.” That’s because I made that name up. All it means is that you like quotes and paraphrases—a lot. If you have a habit of stuffing your papers with words and ideas from other sources and not including many of your own thoughts, pull up a chair—let’s discuss.
Now, for those history majors out there whose papers consist of biographies and other collections of information, you don’t really have a lot of choice. Those kinds of assignments leave little to no room for original thought, so don’t bother trying to shoehorn it in there.
For the rest of us, though, quoting too much can rob us of the most important part of writing papers in the first place—critical, applied thought. If you’re using block quote after block quote, all you’re doing is regurgitating what you’ve read; you’re not learning anything (and neither is your reader!). Adding your own thoughts is a way to connect what you’re reading with what you’re saying and thinking. It also raises your credibility by showing your ability to use research to back up your thoughts.
Imagine trying to sew a quilt without thread or assembling a car without bolts. Nothing holds together, and it falls apart into an unrecognizable heap of useless parts. That’s what an all-quote paper feels like to a reader.
On the other hand, you obviously don’t want to go on a rant and disregard quotes entirely. Your opinions matter, but they are far more convincing when they’re backed by credible sources.
Imagine you’re forced to listen to someone talking about how great (or how awful) their vacation was for half an hour. You can’t leave without offending them, but you’re dying of boredom and want to disagree just so it gets you out of the conversation faster. That’s how your reader (e.g. your professor) feels when you try to write an academic opinion without gathering facts from outside your own head.
So where’s the balance? In reality, it varies from assignment to assignment. I like to structure my papers in a specific way, in what I colloquially call the “quote sandwich.” (Hungry yet?)
Each paragraph starts with a topic sentence. Think of it like the first slice of bread. After that, I add some metaphorical mayonnaise or a slice of cheese by introducing my quote with the author’s name, the title of the work I’m citing, or some other important information to justify the quote’s existence. Then come the lettuce and tomato: the quote itself.
The key with this sandwich, however, is the lunchmeat—explanation. I spend at least a sentence (maybe two) explaining and applying the quote to my topic sentence or thesis. That way, I’m not just pulling a random thought to meet a source requirement; I’m actually using it to back up what I’m trying to say. After that, I might introduce another quote to further my point, but there are layers of mayo or cheese (introduction), veggies (quotes), and meat (original thought). I always end my paragraph with the other piece of bread—a restatement of my topic sentence or a transition to the next paragraph.
Now that you’re good and hungry, let me clarify that there’s no magic ratio of quotes to thoughts. It’s just important that you, as the writer, demonstrate a clear understanding of how these different ideas from different places support your claim—and not just to please your professor. When you are forced to include your reasoning, you often come to better understand it yourself, which is the whole reason you’re writing a paper to begin with. Seize this chance to explore new things about yourself and experiment—the end result will be much more delicious when you do.
Written by Catherine