Using Textual Evidence in Essays

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Using Textual Evidence in Essays

Of course, there is a great deal involved in using textual evidence, but this short list will serve our present purpose. The key point to remember is that your use of other texts is not limited to quoting from authors with whom you agree (though this will be the most common use). You can use other texts

  • as sources of evidence

  • as objects of analysis

  • as authorities to support your claims

  • as representatives of opposing points of view

When instructors make writing assignments that require students to use information and ideas from books, articles, or essays, some students ignore the readings after they have read them, and never mention them, quote them, respond to their arguments, or use any of their information. Other students rely on the readings for everything and produce papers that are merely paraphrases and summaries tagged together and padded out with long quotes. Instead, students should learn that there are commonly agreed upon ways to use outside readings in an essay. Listed below are the three most common:

Summary A summary is a condensation of the main ideas of an article. Making a summary is a useful note taking skill, and it helps the writer use and understand the material he or she is working with. An essay should not simply consist of summaries of articles, however. If the writer chooses to summarize an article in his or her essay, the summary should be brief and it should serve some purpose in the argument.

Quote Direct word‑for‑word quotes should be enclosed in quotation marks. Direct quotes should be used only when something has been especially well said, or when the writer wishes to respond or react to the language the source has used. Some writers quote just to avoid writing something themselves, a practice which should be discouraged.

Paraphrase A paraphrase is a retelling of an idea in different words. Usually a paraphrase has fewer words than the original, so it is a little like a summary, except that the paraphrase is on a smaller scale and deals with only a small section of the original text at a time. Because a paraphrase is in the writer's own words, it usually fits into the essay a little better than a direct quote. Most of the material used from other sources should be in this form.

When you first refer to, or paraphrase or quote from another work you should try to incorporate into your sentence the full name of the author and the title of the text. Subsequent references to the same work and author can use the last name of the author or the title of the text. For example:

In Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, Geoffrey Canada argues that we need to change the way we think about violence in this country. Canada believes that if we fail to act now, "we simply won't be able to continue to have the kind of democratic society that we as Americans cherish" (1) . . .

In the above example, the first sentence is a reference to both the author and the text. The second sentence includes a brief quotation. Here are a few more examples:


Canada offers five proposals that we can do right away to solve the problem of violence in this country.

While not everyone agrees with Canada that media violence leads to violent behavior, there is mounting evidence that exposure to violent images can have a negative impact on children.


According to Canada, recent government attempts to combat drug abuse with advertising slogans have failed to communicate the destructive impact of drugs on people's lives. What is needed is more first-hand experience of the devastating force of drugs, experience which is available through speakers associated with organizations like Narcotics Anonymous. In addition to teaching children about the dangers of drugs, Canada believes that we must also "deglamorize" drugs and drug selling (2).

Direct Quotation

The peace officers would work directly with neighborhood youths, working "to support a new sense of justice and safety" through pro-active involvement (2).

Canada knows it will not be easy, but the difficulty should not stop us from starting now. "If we were fighting an outside enemy," he notes in his conclusion, "that was killing our children at a rate of more than five thousand a year we would spare no expense" in ending the threat. "What happens," asks Canada, "when the enemy is us?" (6).

A Few Cautions

There are a few points to remember when using text to illustrate your point:

Be Brief

While someone else’s words can really help you make your point, the reader is most interested in your words, so make your references, paraphrases and quotes relatively brief.

Choose Carefully

Choose what you want to use carefully. Make sure you need it to illustrate your point, and then make sure that you provide the context necessary for the reader to understand how the material illustrates that point.


Make the quoted words fit into the language (part of speech and verb tense) of your writing.

Always Cite

Always cite the text and author you are using. Failure, even if unintentional, to properly acknowledge someone else’s words or ideas is plagiarism.

Maintain Your Voice

Sometimes when a writer is paraphrasing the ideas of others the viewpoints get mixed up and the reader finds it difficult to know who is saying what. The writer needs to provide good "cueing" so that the reader always knows the difference between what the writer believes and what the source believes.

Citing Sources in the Text

Parenthetical citations should be as brief and as few as possible. This means it is best to incorporate the author(s) and the work into the content of the sentence so that all that is left is to include a page number at the end. For example:

For Canada, the entertainment industry has given in to greed. They have recognized that "the more graphic the 'action' the more tickets will be sold" (4).

In the above example, we see the following:

  • The page number is enclosed in parentheses

  • The punctuation that belongs to the sentence (the period) is placed after the parentheses. (However, note the last example of "Direct Quotation" above where the question mark is placed inside the closing quote mark, followed by the parenthetical page reference, followed by an ending period.)

  • A quoted phrase inside of your quote (words that are surrounded by single or double quote marks in the original text) should be marked by single quote marks ('action' in the above example).

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