What to Document
Keeping the above purposes of documentation in mind will help you decide whether you need a reference note or not. Consider, also, these more specific guidelines:
1. Use a reference citation to identify the source of all material that has been directly quoted.
Strong writers keep direct quotations to a minimum. Include as few direct quotations from outside sources as possible, and keep them as short as possible. As a general rule, quote directly only when the exact wording of your source is vital to understanding the point under discussion or when your source has said something especially eloquent or memorable. Otherwise, paraphrase the ideas, or in the case of a long passage, summarize the relevant points.
When you use a direct quotation, as when you paraphrase or summarize, introduce it with a running acknowledgment, as in the following example:
Here, the writer considered Capra's exact wording to be crucial, and so decided to quote the passage exactly.
2. Use a reference citation to identify the source of material that has been paraphrased or summarized.
Even when you don't quote directly but change your source's wording and restate the ideas in your own language, you should document your source. You should also document your brief summary of the main points of someone else's longer discussion.
Again, as with direct quotation, introduce summarized or paraphrased material with a running acknowledgment.
The first example summarizes the relevant points of a two-page discussion in a few sentences. The second rephrases the main idea from a brief passage and blends it smoothly into the writer's own style. Both examples, however, acknowledge the sources of their concepts.
3. Use a reference citation to direct your reader to important background information.
If a full appreciation of the point you're making depends on familiarity with another person's work, use a note to direct your readers to that material. Let them see the intellectual foundation on which your essay is built.
Here, the writer wants readers to know there is authoritative support for the writer's viewpoint. While the writer doesn't have time to go into this support, the note tells readers where to find it.
4. Do not use a reference citation to document information that is common knowledge, even though you found that information in a specific source.
That is, if a piece of information is generally known and acknowledged to be true, you don't need to provide documentation, even though the information is new to you:
You may have uncovered this information in your research, and you may be able to point out the exact source, but why bother? The information is common knowledge to anyone interested in the period and can be found in any good encyclopedia or British history book. There's no need to document it, anymore than there would be to document the fact that George Washington was the first president of the United States.
© 1996, 2012 by Chuck Guilford