Are your high schoolers ready for college-level writing?
One test is whether they know how to use direct quotesin essays and term papers. I’m not talking about tossing one or two overused, ancient proverbs or a boring dictionary definition in the intro paragraph. I’m talking about the big “R” – research!
Providing Evidence through Direct Quotes
As elementary children, we learn to write summaries. We absorb information and spill it back on paper in our own words. In high school, we meet new expectations. Now we must study source texts and create our own unique opinion (a thesis statement). Every point in a thesis statement must be defended by evidence.
Consider a headline news article. A journalist may make strong assertions, such as:
The police department will take drastic measures to prevent future incidents.
We are much more likely to believe this statement if it is followed by a quote from someone with authority:
Police Chief Jason Roberts says, “I will not allow anyone in my department to wear their uniform off duty until further notice.”
Now the writer has offered evidence.
High school and college essays require evidence. If your daughter is writing about Jane Austen’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet, she must include words from the author’s (or the character’s) own mouth. If your son is writing about Northern attitudes toward slavery during the Civil War, he should avoid generalizations by including quotes from key figures of that era.
Punctuating a Quote: Comma or Colon?
The following sentences are punctuated correctly. Can your student guess why?
- Elizabeth calmly replies, “Indeed, sir, I have not the least intention of dancing.”
- “Indeed, sir, I have not the least intention of dancing,” Elizabeth replies.
- Elizabeth Bennet holds her tongue about her awkward suitor: “Mr. Collins might never make the offer, and, till he did, it was useless to quarrel about him.”
- Elizabeth wisely understands that her cousin “might never make the offer, and, till he did, it was useless to quarrel about him.”
In the first two examples, the quotation is set off by a comma. Grammar rules tell us to always use a comma after a verb such as said, asked, or replied when it appears just before a quote.
In the third example, the sentence would convey a complete thought even without the quotation.
In the fourth example, the quote needs no commas or colons to set it off because of the little word that. When you use that, you can start the quotation mid-sentence, without ellipses or a capital letter.
Rule of Thumb
Don’t use a colon unless there are at least seven words before the quotation.
A Note about Tense
Using the Block Quote
A block quotation is set apart with a special indent and no quotation marks. Use the block-quotation format to quote several consecutive sentences – or one especially long and complex sentence.
Rule of Thumb
Use a block quote when the quotation is five lines or longer.
In the blogosphere, block quotes often appear in political or religious commentaries. In high school English essays, block quotes are effectively used to write about drama and poetry. Block quotes are like dessert; they should be used carefully. Too many can give the impression that a writer is lazy, trying to fill the page with words that are not his own.
Consider this block quotation from Robert Frost’s poem “Birches”:
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
Block Quote or Quotation Marks?
If ellipses were used to shorten the above poem, it would work nicely with quotation marks: “It’s when I’m weary of considerations, / And life is too much like a pathless wood / Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs / Broken across it . . . .”
Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
Plagiarism is a growing concern in colleges and universities across the nation. Prepare your high school student by teaching him to be above board as a writer. If he uses someone else’s idea, he must quote their words or mention their name to avoid plagiarizing. If he references someone else’s book, article, or webpage, he must include that source in a “Bibliography” or “Works Cited” page.
Every teacher and professor may have slightly different guidelines, but MLA citation format is a good place to start. A good reference can be found here: MLA Citation Examples.
Teach your high schoolers how to use direct quotes in essays. With thoughtful research, well-chosen quotations and careful citations, their writing will be ready for the college campus … and beyond.
Daniella Dautrich is a WriteShop alumna and a graduate of Hillsdale College. She and her husband fill their home with books on writing, literature, and computer science. Daniella blogs at www.waterlilywriter.wordpress.com.
As a college student, I majored in journalism. That means I have a lot of experience in all types of writing. In order to major in a communications-related field, students must take a rigorous schedule of English courses, which means a whole lot of essay writing.
I quickly adapted a method of essay writing, which I believe simplifies and streamlines the process.
What’s the trick? Instead of sitting down and writing an essay, from start to finish, as many students do, it’s much easy (and way less time consuming) to do all of your research beforehand, placing each item into a basic outline.
From there, the outline contains all of the information you need to create your essay and, the essay essentially writes itself.
The only work left will be filler writing to explain your thought processes.
Here’s how you can format your essay outline (Note: the example below has three paragraphs, but additional paragraphs can be added as necessary.):
I. Introduction paragraph:
a. What you’d like to discuss within your introduction paragraph
b. Quotes or references, if any
II. Thesis statement: What’s the main point of your essay? Decide what you want to convey in your essay and put it into words. Your entire essay will revolve around this point, so make sure you’re clear and concise in your phrasing. (This is usually placed near the end of your introduction paragraph.)
III. First paragraph topic that supports your thesis
a. List supporting quotes/references: Find quotes from reputable sources that support what you’ve stated within your thesis and that relate to your first paragraph topic.
IV. Second paragraph topic that supports your thesis
a. List supporting quotes/references: Find quotes from reputable sources that support what you’ve stated within your thesis and that relate to your second paragraph topic.
V. Third paragraph topic that supports your thesis
a. List supporting quotes/references: Find quotes from reputable sources that support what you’ve stated within your thesis and that relate to your third paragraph topic.
VI. Conclusion paragraph: Note what you’d like to say within your conclusion paragraph. Your conclusion paragraph should detail how you are going to unite the topics from your aforementioned topics and weave them together into one solid point. Students commonly mistake a conclusion paragraph as a summary paragraph when, in fact, it’s really an opportunity to drive home your argument. Your conclusion should round out your essay and unite your paragraphs together, solidifying your thesis.
a. Additional quotes or references, if any
VII. List all citations: As you find each quote or reference to include within your essay, make sure to cite each reference, so you won’t have to scramble at the end to go back to your sources to see where you found each quotation. List each citation on your outline so it’s already finished before you even complete your essay. That way, it’s one less thing to worry about.
By following this outline format, the work of your essay is already clearly mapped out ahead of time. You already know what you want to say and how you’re going to say it and you have all of the support to back up each theory.
This method takes the stress out of essay writing because it eliminates guesswork; struggling for the right idea or argument and helps you ensure your thesis is strong. If you’re not able to easily fill out the outline, your thesis isn’t strong or clear enough and your essay topic will likely not be a winner as a result.
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