Citing Your Sources: Writing & Citing

The Williams Honor System requires you to properly acknowledge sources you have used in course assignments. This guide provides basic information on how to cite sources and examples for formatting citations in common citation styles.

Tips for Writing a Successful Paper with Sources

College-level writing requires you to use sources, either ones read in class or ones you find yourself through research, to enter the scholarly conversation on a topic. The tips below provide some advice on how to enter this conversation. Click the heading to learn more. 

  • Is your goal to persuade, analyze, report, summarize, etc.?
  • Does your professor expect you to use readings from the class?
  • Do you need to find additional outside sources?

Expectations for use of sources can vary significantly from discipline to discipline. If it hasn’t been spelled out in the assignment description, be sure to ask your professor for clarification.

Start your writing process with a substantive question, ideally one you’re actually curious about. The sources you seek out, then, should answer genuine questions that arise from your initial consideration of your topic or theme. The sources you use should serve to illustrate, extend, demonstrate, and/or inform the argument you’re making rather than make the argument for you. Think of it this way: if you imagine your finished paper as a brick wall, your ideas should be the bricks and your sources should be the mortar—not the other way around.

Write a loose pre-draft of the paper built from your own ideas, observations, and questions without using any sources. This pre-draft can help you articulate your ideas so that you can more accurately identify the specific kind of information you need to fill gaps in your knowledge and strengthen your argument.

Whether you are re-reading class texts or conducting outside research, be sure to write down new ideas, questions, and insights as they occur to you. Otherwise, you risk losing sight of or simply forgetting details that might ultimately add substance to your paper.

Consider recording the following:

  • Evolving ideas on your topic
  • Lists of questions that have come up
  • New insights you want to think about or explore more

Recording your thoughts strengthens your voice and clarifies your thinking throughout the writing process by keeping you in conversation with texts you’re exploring.

Try to avoid selecting and reading sources just because they generally relate to your topic. Rather, think purposefully about what you hope to learn and how you hope the information will support your ideas before you delve into each source.

Some questions to consider:

  • Are you looking for specific data or facts to back a claim you’re making?
  • Are you trying to find an example to substantiate a key point in your argument?
  • Are you reading to gain a better understanding of the cultural or historical moment you’re writing about?
  • Are you exploring the source to fill a gap in your general knowledge about your topic?

Even if the source you’re considering ends up providing different information than you anticipate, going into your exploration with a stated objective gives you a point of reference that can help you more effectively navigate the material. Ultimately, this practice will help you maintain your focus as you explore new material.

Also keep in mind that while you will use sources to support your ideas, it doesn’t mean that you can ignore sources that contradict your argument. A strong paper will introduce such counterarguments and explain why your argument is superior.

Don’t add a quote simply because it seems interesting or sounds impressive. When selecting a quote, ask yourself what the passage will allow you to demonstrate or substantiate. Also understand the value of paraphrasing versus quoting:

Quote when Paraphrase when
  • The passage is concise and can be used with minimal adjustments
  • The language and/or wording of the passage is important to the point you want to make
  • The idea you want to use is long, unwieldy, or in disparate passages
  • A quote would interrupt how you are expressing your own ideas
  • Providing information that is not key to your argument

To prevent plagiarism, you must cite both quoted and paraphrased material. If you’re unsure of what needs to be cited in your paper, be sure to seek clarification from your professor.

For more information, see the books mentioned in the Additional Resources box on this page.

Tips for Research Papers

Consider these questions as you are trying to choose a research topic:

  • What ideas from your classes/readings most draw your attention?
  • What questions continually pique your interest?
  • What shifts and patterns have you noticed in your ways of thinking about the course material?
  • What course assignments or ideas do you want to spend more time thinking about?
  • When you start to feel that a particular theme for the research paper is taking shape, discuss your ideas with your professor.
  • As the course progresses, if you don’t feel that a research theme is emerging for you, meet with your professor to get more solid direction on possible topics.

Reference librarians can help you:

  • Find the most viable sources
  • Save you time tracking down relevant material
  • Insure the quality of the material you use

The more clearly and specifically you can explain your research objectives, the more specific the reference librarians can be in directing you to useful resources. But even if you’re still a little fuzzy on your focus, reference librarians can help you to navigate the research process in ways you might not anticipate. See Ask a Librarian for how to contact a reference librarian.

Get Help Writing and Citing

Writing Programs at Williams

The Writing Workshop provides assistance at any stage of the writing progress, from initial brainstorm to final drafts.

Location: Sawyer Library, Rooms 305 and 302 (entrance lobby)

Schedule an appointment for in-depth assistance

Drop-in during standard hours for on-the-spot help with specific, less complex questions

Additional Resources