Editing Mistakes: Direct Quotes

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As a professional editor, I enjoy reading other people’s theses, dissertations, and professional manuscripts. Whether it’s inside or outside of my academic area, I always learn a lot. One of the things I have learned is that there are mistakes that are in (almost) all the papers I see. Some of these mistakes weaken the paper, or detract from the readability of the paper. In the paragraphs below, and in the blogs to follow, I will lay out several of these mistakes, why they are a problem, and how to fix them. I hope this series will aid you in the preparation of your manuscript.

The first mistake I see too much is directly quoting sources. By this I mean that paragraphs (sometimes it’s every other paragraph) feature a direct quote from a source. Often, it’s more than one direct quote. Usually the quotes are cited correctly, according to the style requirements. Regardless, it’s a weakness in your paper, and should be avoided.

It’s a problem because your readers, whether they are your committee members, your professors, or your colleagues, want to hear your thoughts on the topic. Too many quotations lead the readers to believe (rightly or wrongly) that you have not integrated and synthesized the material. Your readers want evidence that you understand the material at a fundamental level, and can use the ideas in the citations to support your arguments.

Writers often do this because they want their readers to know that they have read the background material. What could be worse that to be asked by a reviewer or committee member, “Have you considered the thoughts of XXX on your questions?”

The way to avoid directly quoting your sources is to paraphrase their ideas. This works especially well when several sources have considered the particular topic in the paragraph. An example: Both Anderson (1999) and Bechtel (2000) have indicated that participants may provide socially-desirable responses to surveys. To counter this problem, Carson (1998) suggests including a subtle lie scale in the questionnaire, though Drexel (2001) notes that this must be done carefully to avoid alerting the respondents.1 This manner of citing your sources shows that you have not only read the literature, but have integrated the viewpoints of various authors and time periods. This is always good.

I am often asked, “How many direct quotations should I have in my paper?” My reply is always, “None is good.” In a dissertation or a long journal paper, if you have one quote that sums up the entire topic of the paper, it is okay to use that in the first or second paragraph. Otherwise, “None is good!”

1These references are fictitious

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