What Is a Citation in Writing?

Written by Rebecca Turley

citation in writing

Samuel Adams perhaps said it best: “Give credit where credit is due” (although the quote was taken from his original “give credit to whom credit is due”). Though Adams wrote this adage way back in 1777, it holds true today. Writers have a moral (and often legal) obligation to give credit when using another person’s words.

A citation informs a reader that some of your information came from another source. Citations in writing allow writers to give credit to other writers or speakers. The term “citing a work” means to disclose the source of the information through a properly formatted and structured citation.

Citations are Important to Writers, Editors, and Readers

Citations are far more than just torture for a writer. Taking the time to cite a source and provide a properly formatted citation may be a bothersome step in the writing process, but it’s an important one.

Citations lend credibility to your writing because they back up/support your claims or ideas. Citing other works strengthens your work and shows the reader that you have written a solid, well-researched piece. In some cases, it can even pass the buck off to another source when a theory, idea, or claim doesn’t hold water.

Citations also serve as a valuable resource for readers who want to read other materials written on the subject.

Plus, if the tables were turned, wouldn’t you want another writer to cite your work?

Avoiding the Big P – As in Plagiarism 

plagiarismA citation in writing should never be considered an option or afterthought and should never fall by the wayside when you produce written work that involves using other works as reference.

At its worse, failing to properly cite another person’s work is dishonest and unethical. Get slapped with plagiarism (passing off someone else’s work as your own) and your work immediately becomes null and void, and you become an untrustworthy author of information – a veritable Scarlet Letter in the world of writing (or in your field or industry).

Plagiarism is illegal because original works of authorship (includes literary, dramatic, and musical works) are protected under copyright law. Therefore, failing to property cite sources opens the door to another author taking legal action against you.

All About the Citation in Writing: When to Use It, What It Looks Like

If you’re using someone else’s words or ideas from a magazine, book, newspaper, journal, interview, TV show, lecture, speech, website, blog, song, advertisement, or letter, you’ll need to use a citation.

You’ll always use a citation when:

If you use someone else’s work or ideas as inspiration, you’ll also likely want to cite your source.

The general rule of thumb regarding citation is: When in Doubt, Cite.

But there are some instances where you can feel comfortable not using a citation:

      • George Washington was the first U.S. President.
      • Japan’s surrender marked the end of WWII.
      • The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.
      • Most teenagers use cell phones.
      • Soda is a source of empty calories.
      • Walking is good for your health.
      • George Washington chopped down the cherry tree.
      • A penny dropped from the Empire State Building could kill someone.
      • Lightning never strikes twice.

Types of Citations – MLA, APA, Chicago

A citation in writing is a two-step process.

First, you’ll cite the source in the body of your work by using standardized citation methods according to one of the three standard style guides – MLA, Chicago, APA:

When using MLA or APA styles, your in-text citations are formatted in parentheticals that are inserted at the end of a sentence or paragraph. MLA parenthetical notes include the author’s name and the page number. For example, (McGinnis, p. 12). APA parenthetical notes also include the year of the publication. For example, (McGinnis, 2008, p. 12).

writing in officeIn Chicago style, in-text citations include superscript numbers inserted at the end of a sentence or paragraph. For example: The research revealed a success rate of 30 percent. ² 

The superscript numerals are associated with full citations that are listed at the bottom of the page (footnotes), at the end of a chapter (endnotes), or as a list of cited references at the end of the paper. The superscript numbers are found chronologically and match the footnote, endnote, or cited reference page numbers for easy referencing.

Then, you’ll provide all the necessary citation details on a dedicated citation page that’s found at the end of your work. (Note: the citation page is referred to as a Works Cited page in MLA style, References page in APA, and Bibliography in Chicago)

A proper citation includes key information:

Each style has its own citation formatting:

MLA: Last name, First name. “Title of Article.” Title of Periodical, volume, issue, year, pages.

APA: Last name, First initial. (Year). Title of article. Title of periodical, volume number (issue number), pages.

Chicago: Author full name, Book Title: Subtitle, edition. (Place of publication: Publisher, Year), page numbers.

When to Quote, When to Paraphrase

quotation marksDirect quotes are used to capture an original sentence(s), word for word. If you are using exact words, quotations must always be used. Quotes are best used when highlighting the author’s distinct voice or words. They can be very impactful in a work.

Paraphrasing or summarizing someone else’s work is used when you want to convey the message or idea in your own words. It’s also helpful when condensing information (i.e., you can get the point across in fewer words).

While there’s no written rule, a blend of quotes and paraphrases often works best, although it’s best to paraphrase when you can because the work, after all, should be in your voice. According to MLA style, quotes should be used “selectively.”

It may also be effective to blend paraphrasing with direct quotes. Such as:

Direct quote: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Paraphrase with direct quote: In the Preamble to the United States Constitution, it states that the people of the United States will “secure the blessings of liberty.”