An epigraph is a quote before the introduction of a novel, poem or essay. This convention packs a great impact in what is usually a few words or brief sentences. Rosemary Ahern, author of “The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin,” compares the epigraph to a "baptism" before you share your work with an audience, so it should not to be taken lightly. By choosing the right epigraph, you can allude to a theme or drive home an idea with more power.
When to Use an Epigraph
An epigraph could be a great way to start your paper. Because it is set off from the introduction of your essay, it grabs the reader’s attention. The reader will likely assume the quotation is important to your work. The American Psychological Association style blog mentions that an epigraph might “set the stage” for your ideas, or it could summarize or contrast themes. Epigraphs can provide insight, or they can even be humorous. Ahern mentions author Vikram Seth’s use of a Voltaire quote, “The secret of being a bore is to say everything,” before his 1400-page novel "A Suitable Boy."
Choosing an Epigraph
After you decide to use an epigraph for your essay, you must consider what quote will have the greatest impression on your reader or set the tone of your essay. Ahern mentions that some writers choose a favorite author, and many epigraphs are specific to a particular individual’s tastes. She also identifies three qualities of effective epigraphs -- they are brief, funny or wise, or sometimes all three at once. Choose an epigraph that is no longer than a few words or a complete sentence. Use a comical epigraph to challenge expectations, make fun of yourself or make your essay enticing to the reader. Wise epigraphs provide insight to your paper, which might be revealed to the reader at the end of your essay.
The American Psychological Association manual does not specifically address epigraphs, but the APA style blog provides rules for formatting epigraphs in APA journals. Treat the epigraph as a block quote by indenting about a half an inch from the left margin, as you would to start a new paragraph. Do not use quotation marks around the text. On the line below the epigraph, create an em dash, followed by the author’s name, a comma and the source’s title, which should be italicized. This credit line should be flush to the right side of the page. Do not list the source in the References page. If you use a quote from a scholarly publication or a quotation by permission, write the author’s last name, year and page number, each set off with a comma, inside parentheses at the end of the quote. You do need to cite this type of source in the References page.
As with APA, the Modern Language Association manual does not have specific instructions for epigraphs, but writers typically follow the rules for indented quotations. Write your epigraph one double space beneath your title. Indent 2 inches on both sides of the epigraph, so it’s 1 inch further from the standard margin. Use single spacing for the epigraph, and center the text on the page. Put quotation marks around the text. On the line below the epigraph, write the speaker’s name, flush right, but still within the margins you set up for the epigraph. Cite the source in your Works Cited page. Remember to reset the 1-inch margins on the next line and resume double spacing for the remainder of your essay.