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Using research in writing: Using MLA style


Proper Use of Research
In-Text Citations
Works Cited Page
General Format Considerations

Let me tell you the most important thing I ever taught anybody. I guess it must be because one of my students told me that it had changed his entire view of what education was all about and changed his life. When he was a graduate student, he told me about this thing I wrote on one of his papers years before when he was a junior in one of my classes. He had written a long research paper with lots of quotations and citations. He was a pretty good student and could easily crank out a long research paper. What did I write on his paper? He said I wrote that his weakness in the paper was that he had merely strung one quotation after another in a reasonably organized fashion, but he hadn't done the most important thing in writing: he hadn't written about what he thought on the subject.

Anyway, with sincerity, he told me that that one comment changed the way he looked at his writing. Previously he didn't think what he thought had any place in a research paper, whereas my comment to him told him that the only really valuable part of his paper was what he thought.

After all these years I've often thought about what this student told me for two reasons: First, I believe that of everything I could have taught him, that principle is probably the most important thing a student can learn about writing. Second, I've often wondered why more students don't get that message as plainly and directly as he did.

In writing any paper, whether or not you use research to support your ideas, you should understand that the whole point of it is to make what you have to say clear and persuasive. Everything else is secondary to that. If you quote Martin Luther King twenty-five times in a paper, what is the value in that? Rather than read your paper, wouldn't I learn about King better by reading his writing directly? Thanks for the tips in your paper, but I'll go to the original source! All the quotations are essentially raw information; in your paper, they are given life only if you use them to support or illustrate points you want to make, only if you add your own unique commentary or interpretation of the meaning of Dr. King's words, and only if you make use of them in some way.

Remember that information is not valuable for its ownsake. In A Guidebook to Learning, Mortimer Adler wrote that the four goods of the mind, in an ascending scale of values, are information, organized knowledge, understanding, and wisdom (110). All your writing should demonstrate your organization of the information you have gathered and thought about, your understanding, and your wisdom.

But there is more. Knowledge in a university, and in the larger world of which it is a part, is not a matter of individuals acting alone. Instead, knowledge is seen as a common possession of mankind, beyond single individuals, across national boundaries, and across time. Knowledge is a collaborative process of human beings, who try to understand the world and try to communicate that knowledge to others. Part of the process is a comparison of new ideas and observations against the cumulation of everything that has been known before. Scholars in a university participate in the quest for truth. As they answer questions they find important and compelling, they know they must fulfill their obligations as members of this larger human quest for knowledge in some specific ways: to state their ideas clearly and fully, to explain the rationale or methodology employed to answer the questions, to present the results of their investigation fully and accurately, and to reach conclusions using sound reason and candor. Scholarship requires the acknowledgement of sources and the attempt to compare the new knowledge with the old.

Proper Use of Research  * In-Text Citations * Works Cited Page * General Format Considerations

Proper Use of Research Material

How do you write a research paper?

You should understand that ultimately the research paper is to present your point of view and reasoning about the subject. Everything in Chapter 9 is pertinent here. In the Summer Bridge curriculum at Fresno State, there are two major writing assignments:

In supporting, illustrating, comparing, and validating your ideas with the information you have gathered from research, there are some scholarly guidelines to follow. There are some effective ways to use the quotations and facts from your research, and there are some not so effective ways. I am going to review a number of important things to know about how scholars write using research materials. There are several scholarly formats for citing sources in academic work; in this chapter, I am going to discuss some of the main features of what is commonly called MLA Style. There are others, but it is confusing to learn them all at once. MLA Style was selected because it is broadly acceptable across the General Education curriculum first and second year students experience in a university and because it is the style the English Department uses in its developmental writing curriculum.

Consider the following general format that illustrates these two principles:

Your topic sentence xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx. Your statement of a point developing the topic sentence xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx. A signal phrase introduces the quotation, "The quotation or paraphrase goes here xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx" (Author 43). A comment or interpretation of the quotation which links back to the topic sentence follows the use of the quotation xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx. Your statement of a second point developing the topic sentence xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx.. A summary sentence reiterating the main point of the paragraph and, perhaps, a transition to the point of the next paragraph.

This format model shows a couple of things. The quotation is embedded within a larger paragraph that is driven by a point you are making. The quotation (or paraphrase or fact) supports your point; it itself is not the vehicle for expressing your point. The precise format for using the quotation is (1) a signal phrase to introduce the quotation, (2) the quotation, and (3) what is called an in-text citation. (Author 43) is a parenthetical citation form that indicates that the source of the quotation (or paraphrase or fact) is Author and that the material was found on page 43.

I said above that you should follow this format each time you are using any of your research material. Although there are some exceptions, I mean this to be taken almost literally. As you gain experience as a writer and as a researcher, you will find that there are many variations on this theme, but I advise students new to university-level writing to adhere pretty closely to the model. A mistake professors frequently see students make is that many times quotations simply stuck between two paragraphs.:

Paragraph One on Topic A.

"The quotation is just placed here after Paragraph One. The problem is that it is naked, without comment, without context, and without connection to Topic A. The quotation is on a completely new one, Topic B" (Author 53).

Paragraph Three on Topic C.

This type of writing error flags the student as someone who doesn't know how to write well and not a good candidate for graduate school, as it were. If you follow the format I've described, you will be following a pattern characteristic of how scholars in all fields use quotations in academic publications; moreover, in the professional world outside the university, the pattern is an expectation in business, government, medicine, and most other fields.

In a technical sense, there are three more things you need to know about: how to do the in-text citations, how to make a Works Cited page, and how to format the research paper (what it looks like). After these things are discussed, you should be ready to use the research information to supplement your own thinking on the culture topic and to fashion a research paper that would be acceptable across the university.

Proper Use of Research  * In-Text Citations * Works Cited Page * General Format Considerations

In-Text Citations

In-text citations are very easy to do. The Modern Language Association was striving to find a way to provide proper documentation but being as little intrusive into the natural flow of the writing as possible. In our normal conversations we often say things like, "I quite disagree. George Smith told me that XXXXX," or something like, "I read in People magazine that XXXXX." MLA in-text citations are very much like that. George Smith and read in People magazine signal to the listener that some sort of quotation or paraphrase is coming up. The only thing needed to complete the citation is the to know where the paraphrase came from, and MLA provides two easy ways to do this depending on what you said in the signal phrase:

Luis Bunuel wrote of life in the upper class in Spain: "The only thing my father would carry in the street was his elegantly wrapped jar of caviar. According to social convention, men of 'rank' were never supposed to carry anything; that's what servants were for. Even when I went o my music lesson, my governess always carried the violin case" (25).

There was considerable difference between the upper class and the worker in Spain. As a Spanish director observed about his childhood, "The only thing my father would carry in the street was his elegantly wrapped jar of caviar. According to social convention, men of 'rank' were never supposed to carry anything; that's what servants were for. Even when I went o my music lesson, my governess always carried the violin case" (Bunuel 25).

The variations in in-text citation form have to do with the enormous diversity of the sources we employ in our writing. What if there are two authors? What if there is no author identified in the source? What if it is a source quoted in another source? You will need a good reference book on MLA Style. As you start a major for your B.A. or B.S. degree studies, you should find out which style manual is recommended for your field, obtain a copy of the manual, and begin learning how to use it in your writing. My objective here is to introduce you to the general features of MLA style, not all the specific requirements. A few notes on form for some of the most common citations:

"xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx" (Gronbeck et al. 342).

Proper Use of Research  * In-Text Citations * Works Cited Page * General Format Considerations

Making a Works Cited Page

Next you need to know how to make a Works Cited page. In MLA Style, as the name of the page suggests, the Works Cited page lists all sources cited in the text of your paper. No book, article, or other reference should appear on the page unless it is linked to a citation in the text, and no use of research material should appear in the text without an associated Works Cited page entry. In general, the rules conform to those well known for making a bibliography. On the page, all citations appear in alphabetical order by the author's last name (or if that is unknown, by the first word of the title of the article or book). Each entry begins at the margin on the first line, but each succeeding line is indented; in Microsoft Word, by the way, this paragraph format is called a "hanging indent." When it comes time to type the Works Cited page, use Format/Paragraph and set the Special Indentation to Hanging Indent.

There are several forms for the many types of books, periodicals, on-line and electronic sources, letters, interviews, and other sources used in research and writing. Your best strategy is to have your reliable MLA Style manual next to you as you work and to check the format for each source you are using. It is important to follow the format specified exactly, with close attention to spacing, underlining, quotation marks, commas, colons, periods, etc.

Here are illustrations of the more commonly encountered sources:

Bunuel, Luis. The Autobiography of Luis Bunuel. Trans. Abigail Israel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

Infante, Dominic A., Andrew S. Rancer, and Deanna F. Womack. Building Communication Theory. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1990.

  • Book in edition other than first:

Hacker, Diana. A Pocket Style Manual. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.

Teachout, Terry. "Old Money, Young Love." Civilization June/July 1998: 39-40.

Stodghill, Ron. "Where'd You Learn That?" Time 15 June 1998: 52-59.

Fisher, Walter R. "Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm." Communication Monographs 51 (1984): 1-22.

Robertson, Peter. "Clothes for a Cause." The Fresno Bee 16 June 1998: E3.

Cagle, John A. Personal interview. 16 July 1998.

Cagle, John A. "Cagle's Famous Best Movies Ever Made Lists." Internet: http://www.csufresno.edu/speechcomm/movie.htm. (14 June 1998).

Roush, David W., and Earl L. Dunlap. "Juveniles in Adult Prisons: A Very Bad Idea." Corrections Today 59.3 (June 1997): 21. Online. InfoTrac Search Bank.

Once again, there are a great number of specific formats for the innumerable different kinds of materials used in writing research papers.

Proper Use of Research  * In-Text Citations * Works Cited Page * General Format Considerations

General Format Considerations

The last thing you need to know about writing the research paper is what the paper is supposed to look like. MLA has some specific rules for manuscripts. Fortunately, a number of the requirements are built into word processing programs as defaults; to put it another way, you have to have some advanced computer skills to mess up the way Microsoft Word will print your essay on paper. Anyway, here are some of the important things to know:

  • Your paper should be double-spaced throughout.
  • Margins should be about 1.5" on the left margin, with 1" margins on right, top, and bottom. Do not justify the right margin.
  • Number all pages in the upper right corner. Put your last name or a running head (short title) before each page number. In a computer's word processing technical language, this is called a Header.
  • MLA doesn't require a title page, but you may put one on your paper. Keep it simple and straightforward: the title goes about four inches from the top and centered; your name as author goes in the middle of the page and centered; and facts about the paper go centered at the bottom--course name, professor's name, and date.
  • Use a standard font size throughout paper: Times New Roman 12 pt. Font is a standard type and size. 14 pt. and larger fonts make it look as if you are "stretching the paper" because you don't want to do any more work than you need to do to get by, making a very bad impression on your professor.
  • A long quotation should be "set off" from the flow of the paragraph in which it occurs. After a signal phrase appropriate for the quotation and a colon or comma, the long quotation is block indented beginning on the next line. What is "long"? The general rule of thumb is any quotation that takes seven or more lines of your text.
  • In a long paper (a judgment call, but somewhere longer than 8-10 pages), it is a good idea to break the paper into sections and use sub-headings.
  • The Works Cited page always begins as a new page at the end of your paper. It should have a running head and page number in the upper right corner as well.

You should now be prepared to put together your research paper in conformity with the MLA Style. When you have done so, you print the paper.

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fstlogo.gif (4428 bytes) Writing and Information Competency in Small Bytes
John A. Cagle, Ph.D.
Summer Bridge Program
California State University, Fresno

1998 by John A. Cagle, Professor of Communication, California State University, Fresno.

This information competency website was designed by John A. Cagle (Department of Communication) and Ross LaBaugh (Librarian) as part of a grant from the California State University.  It continues to be under construction.