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The Importance of Citation

The Importance of Citation

Learning to use citation effectively is a must for any student wishing to attain top marks. No first-rate essay omits citation. No matter how incisive your own ideas may be, from an academic stand point, they can only gain from the backing of appropriate sources. Luckily, when writing a piece of academic prose, the modern student is at a huge advantage. This is because they have unprecedented access to a vast wealth of critical information, scholarly resources of all kinds, which can be used as building blocks in student composition. Citation, therefore, is of the first importance because it permits you to stand on the shoulders of textual giants; and this gives you a great boon. If you can support your own views with an aptly chosen quote from Chomsky, a philosophical insight from de Beauvoir, or a timely apothegm from Nietzsche, then your argument is going to command more authority. This is because you are effectively borrowing the relevant source’s critical standing in order to lend weight and credibility to your own. This interplay between current and former scholarly texts is central to critical writing. Academic work is a continuum; each scholarly texts builds upon precursors, and your own efforts are no different. Think of citation, then, as the linking glue that joins your critical writing to precursor works. In light of this convention, the best course of action is to utilise citation to maximum effect (and thus achieve better grades).  

Citation affords a valuable opportunity to invest your essay with more definitive, colourful, or contentious content than you would otherwise be able to. As long as you make sure the people you cite are reputable scholarly sources (Wikipedia absolutely will not do), there is no restriction on what you may use. Of course, one needs to be discriminating; you do not want to fill your essay with other people’s voices, crowding out your own. Rather, see each citation as placing a capstone on your personal ideas and insights. Citation should function to amplify, reinforce or underline, not replace, the student’s own analyses. Hence there is a delicate economy at play when it comes to citing sources and this takes a little time to internalise. Keeping citations brief and to the point is the primary objective, here; you want citations to have a summative function, capturing the essence of the point in discussion. Usually, therefore, an apt citation will take the form of declarative statement or assertion; it will have a conclusive overtone, answering as opposed to asking a question. Naturally, these are not hard and fast rules; they are provisional guidelines and may be broken where and when occasion demands. Familiarise yourself with effective use of citation by reading other academic texts. Try and figure out how and why certain citations have the effect they do, always bearing in mind the overall scholarly intention. Patterns will soon become apparent.

The most effective way of compiling sources is to gather a pool of citations from which to draw. Best practice is to note down any relevant quotes you come across during the research stage, so that you have a reservoir to hand, a vital critical resource. Then, as you compose your essay and your argument unfolds, natural junctures for these quotations will suggest themselves. For instance, say we are writing about Political Realism. We might open thus: Political Realism is a movement that emphasises the importance of hard power and state self-interest as opposed to soft power and international cooperation. This is our own definition, which is fine; however, we consolidate this perspective if we succeed it with a relevant citation. Here, an apt quote from proto-realist Machiavelli serves nicely, which we would frame thus: This kind of thinking was tersely captured by Machiavelli when he observed that, for a political ruler, “it is far safer to be feared than loved”. Note the summative tone of the citation; it narrows rather than broadens the focus. What we have done in this instance is underlined our own observation (defining realism) with a pithy assertion from a well-known source. Machiavelli’s observation gets the point across very directly and with an idiomatic tenor that would not be appropriate for us to use; as a citation, however, this is just the kind of offering we want. It adds verbal colour to the text without diverting the critical substance into an inappropriate register. Hence we have balanced various textual priorities to specific effect, expanding on our point while at the same time narrowing focus.

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