Quotations are dangerous. The way that you use quotations can give away whether you think you are still writing as a student, or writing as an expert scholar in your own right.
Student assignments are often heavily strewn with quotations. The Essay, the typical genre for assignments, is usually marked by chunks of text liberally interspersed with indented quotations. This use of quotations may be intended to show the person marking the assignment that the writer has read lots of ‘stuff’. What’s more, they have not only read them, but also read them well enough to be able to select relevant quotations.
Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate (yes that’s a very long time ago) I always learnt a few select multi-purpose quotations that I could insert into exam papers where appropriate. I though that this would show the examiner that I knew the literatures very well, so well that I could reel off some actual text on demand. I deliberately used a kind of academic name-dropping approach where I tried to show that I knew who was who in the field by quoting them at what seemed to be respectable intervals. Looking back I’m pretty sure that all this actually showed was that I had a good short-term memory, rather than anything about my grasp of the subject.
Every undergraduate marker also knows that padding out the assignment with quotations is an easy way to reach the word limit. This was not my problem as an undergraduate, but I have certainly marked a lot of under and post graduate assignments where quotations have been integral to a must-reach-word-limit strategy.
Sometimes quotations are used extensively because the writer thinks that this is what is expected of academic writing. However, this is not actually the case. Expert scholars don’t over-rely on quotations. Unless they are conducting a textual analysis, they generally tend to only refer to the work of others where necessary. They do this by summarizing the key points that they use from others’ work. They use citations and footnotes rather than extensive quotations. They use a quotation only when there is no better way of explaining a particular point, or when they want to give a flavour of a particularly scholarly ‘voice’ – in addition to their own.
I often review journal articles where a social theorist has been used. The theoretical work is introduced early in the paper and very often through a proliferation of quotations. It is not uncommon to see the balance of a social theory section weighted towards quotations, rather than a succinct summary being made by the writer. This actually suggests to the reader – in this case me – that the writer doesn’t know the theory well enough to explain it themselves. Reading this early in a paper thus adversely affects the reading that follows.
That is not the only contrary impact of quotations. Extensive use of quotations can suggest to readers that:
• the writer is not confident enough to say things in their own words. They summarise at length and use the words of others as a kind of shield behind which they are hiding. This timidity is exacerbated if quotations are used as if they speak for themselves, rather than the writer providing an interpretation of them or saying how they are relevant to the discussion in hand.
• the writer has no ideas of their own. They must generate an argument solely through the work of others. They are incapable of anything but derivative thought.
• the writer is not thinking about the reader. It is actually pretty off-putting to encounter slabs of over-documented, excessively exemplified prose. It is monotonous, dull and hard to read. It also overshadows whatever original thought is being presented.
So there is very good reason to be wary of quotations. They must be handled with care. Do check their use if you want to avoid presenting your work as an assignment, rather than as an argument for your own contribution. Over quoting can help to undermine your authority as a writer and your credibility as a scholar.