The Importance of Specific Details

A frequent mistake in writing is failing to provide specific examples, evidence, or details to support an idea or thesis. In an essay about a poem, for example, it isn't enough to say that the author's language creates a dark, gloomy atmosphere. You should identify particular words and images that demonstrate this effect. In an essay arguing that magnet schools in cities improve education for minority students, you must provide evidence—statistics, anecdotes, and so on. If your assignment is to write an essay on the statement, We learn more from our failures than our successes, you shouldn't merely reflect on the statement; you should cite examples from your life, from the news, or from history. Essays filled with general, unsupported statements are not only unconvincing but also uninteresting.


As you take notes, be aware that when you write your paper you must cite any sources you use, so record the information you'll need for parenthetical (in‐text) citations. Consult a style guide for proper format of citations within the text of your paper and at the end (bibliography, works cited, references page). You'll be guilty of plagiarism if you don't properly give credit for words or ideas that you have taken from other writers.

Most people understand that they can't steal exact material (such as copying and pasting words or charts from a Web site), but some believe that paraphrasing other's words or ideas is acceptable. It isn't. Paraphrasing isn't just changing a few words in a sentence taken from another source. Unless the words or ideas are your own or they are considered general knowledge, you must cite the source of your information.

While you don't need to cite the source of well‐known ideas such as evolution or easily accessible facts such as the date of the first moon landing, you should document less generally known ideas or opinions (for example, a news analyst's assessment of a Supreme Court decision), and less accessible facts (such as the number of motorcycles sold in the United States in a given year). Deciding what to cite can be a gray area, but play it safe. If you have doubts, cite the source.

Quoting and paraphrasing

When should you use quotations in a paper, and when should you paraphrase information instead? If you want to make a point about an author's language or style—as in the analysis of a literary work—use quotations. But don't quote an entire stanza if you are going to comment on only two words. And don't give up your responsibility to discuss a character simply by quoting a descriptive passage from a novel. Quoted material should support your ideas.

If you are concentrating on the information a source conveys rather than the author's expression, consider paraphrasing (putting the information in your own words) rather than quoting, especially if the passage is long and includes material you don't need. Ask yourself, “Why am I including this quotation?” If you have a good reason—an author's language, for example, or a particularly apt expression—go ahead. But often you only need the content or part of the information. Consider the following passage:

Community‐based policing has given rise to several important questions, among them the following: Should police officers address social problems that extend beyond particular crimes? Some experts on police reform say yes, while others say no. Although there is agreement that having police officers walk regular beats can decrease community suspicion and deter lawbreakers, the experts who are against greater involvement feel that giving police a broader responsibility by expecting them to deal with problems such as urban decay and irresponsible parenting is unrealistic and ultimately undesirable.

If you're writing about attitudes toward police reform, why not paraphrase the point that relates to your topic, as shown in the following paragraph?

Police-reform experts disagree about many issues, including whether or not police should involve themselves in social issues that go beyond their direct responsibility to deter crime and apprehend lawbreakers.

Don't pad a paper with quotations to add length (you'll irritate the instructor). And don't quote heavily to prove that you've read a source and have evidence for your points. Paraphrasing works just as well. Caution: Paraphrasing a source requires correct citation of the source of your ideas, just as a quotation does.