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A Simple Guide to Correct Documentation

Posted on Monday December 10, 2012 by Michael Keathley

Many students struggle with academic citation styles, usually those from the Modern Language Association (MLA) or American Psychological Association (APA). This is a good indication that students are taking the need to and expectation of giving sources proper credit seriously. Most students also understand that the proper integration and citation of external resources strengthens their own writing and academic/professional reputation, too. Simply put, adhering to an academic style makes you look good.

As one who has taught composition, worked as a writing program administrator, and used various styles as a professional writer for over 25 years, I have found students are actually struggling more with the growing pains of moving from being writers of personal expression pieces (e.g., sharing opinions on a novel’s theme) to academic composers of solidly backed informative or persuasive pieces that are part of a larger conversation within a field. The easy part is actually documentation.

Documentation Is Easy?

Remember when you were a kid and you traced pictures in coloring books? You may also have colored them in, written your name on some, and then shared them with mom and dad as you squealed, “Look what I drew!”

Documenting sources is a similar process. Let’s say you read a great book on your Nook and integrate some information from it into a research paper. Now you want to cite the source. All you need to do is find an example in the MLA style guide and copy it. Your source has one author, so you find an example such as this one from the MLA.org website :

Rowley, Hazel. Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage. New York: Farrar, 2010.

    Kindle file.

Now copy the same format for your source, replacing the information as needed:

Jones, Kayla. Gainful Employment Guide. Chicago: Frank Publishing, 2011. Nook.

Note that all I did was find the example and copy its format: author, title, city, publisher, copyright year, and electronic device name. Continue to work your way through your paper, following the examples given for in-text and bibliography page citations in the required style (e.g., APA or MLA), and you should feel as proud as you once did sharing your picture with your parents.

Simple Checklist

Although citing sources and following a certain academic style are easier than most students seem to realize, working through the process often feels tedious. This opens the door to some mistakes. The good news, however, is that there are some easy checks to help make sure your documentation is accurate. Here is a checklist I share with my students:

• Make sure the version of the style guide you are using is current. Citation guidelines are regularly updated. Go straight to the APA or MLA website or your university’s writing center rather than random websites or a printed version mom or dad used when they were in school.

• Don’t over-rely on tools that will auto-format citations. They are helpful, but they are not perfect. You still need to review the formatting using a current style guide.

• Complete the bibliography page first; then write the in-text citations.

• Always start bibliography page entries with a name (of an author(s) or of an organization) or a title on reference entries.

• Always use what comes first on the references entry for in-text citations. This will also be the name or title. In the examples given above, the in-text citations will use Rowley or Jones.

• Check the formatting. Is the bibliography double-spaced; did you indent after the first line of each entry; and is the list alphabetized?

• URLs never form in-text citations nor are they the sole item within a bibliography page (e.g., the References or Works Cited) entry. If you have an in-text citation or bibliography page entry that looks like this: (www.mla.org), you will know you have cited incorrectly.

• Cross-check the in-text citations against the bibliography page entries and vice versa. These should match. Any source with an in-text citation must have a complete entry on the bibliography page; any bibliography entry must have at least one in-text citation. This shows readers what source was used and what information came from that source. In the two examples above, I have the Rowley and Jones sources listed on the bibliography page; therefore, in at least once place in which I borrowed information from these sources, their names should appear in an in-text citation. For example, according to MLA: (Jones, ch. 3).

• Never cite yourself or insert “author unknown.”

Few people, if any, have the citation guidelines memorized. However, careful adherence to the suggestions provided in this simple guide should help you correctly document your papers. If you have another good tip, please share it in the comments window below.

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