The Wherefore and the Why of Citations
An essay is only as good as the information that proves its ideas. This basic truth causes no end of consternation when writing an essay because we tend to focus more on the ideas and the logic which connects them than the information that supports them. Any idea no matter how seemingly obvious needs to be supported by information, and that information needs to be available to everyone. This is why citations are so important: without a strong foundation in solid facts an essay is nothing more than a collection of opinions that have no more force than a status-update on FaceBook.
This is also why the format of your citations is so important. Imagine the frustration when you're trying to get to someplace truly fantastic and, when asked for directions, a local just says "oh, just go that-a-way for a while and then stop." A citation is a way to give someone directions to the place from where your information came. If any reader -- not just your teacher or roommate -- cannot find the book, article, movie or person that gave you your piece of information, then your citation is worthless. Styles like the MLA (Modern Language Association), APA (American Psychological Association), or Chicago standardize the format of citations so any reader can figure out how to locate the specific information that you use in your paper.
When remembering what to include in your citation, just remember Who, What, Where, and When. Every citation gives these details just in different orders and punctuated slightly differently. (Check out the links for examples.) If you don't know a particular one of these, look it up and include it. Trust me. It's important.
What Information Needs to Be Cited Anyway?
In the modern world of academia, it can seem like you should either cite everything or nothing. "Where is the happy medium?" I hear you cry. There are a few simple rules to follow for figuring out what to cite, and it all comes down to what you're trying to prove. Just remember that:
- Each paragraph presents one single idea that is supported by points of information. Those points of information are what you need to cite.
- If possible, find more than one source for any single piece of information.
- "Common knowledge" does not need to be cited. this includes anything found in dictionaries, encyclopedias or other works of reference. However, if you have a 'gut feeling' that you need to cite it, then do so. Just find a source other than your reference-work (and Wikipedia is never worth citing).
It can sometimes feel like it is difficult to find citations. All you need to do is find one book on your topic and look to see what sources it cites. Then find those and you have a rich collection to draw on. Of course, you should keep hunting, but it's a good start.