How to Use Sources When Writing an Essay

Citing sources when you are writing an essay can seem complicated at first, but if you follow the rules it gets easier. The importance of using sources correctly when writing an essay cannot be overstated. Writers must be credited with their ideas and language. Not to do so is considered plagiarism, which is frowned upon at every level from elementary school through college and beyond.

Step 1

Make sure you understand the assignment before you spend a great deal of time doing research. Once you have determined your topic and thesis statement, it is a good idea to check with your teacher or professor to be sure you are on the right track.

Step 2

Use varied sources from reputable books, periodicals and websites. Make sure that your source is reputable because today, anyone can post or print information. Try to use a primary source, such as a governmental agency or an accredited organization. Encyclopedias and periodicals can also be good sources of information. If you use a website, make sure you know where the information is coming from. Some sites look official, but in reality may be slanted and not evenhanded.

Step 3

Use a style guide such as the "MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers" and Kate Turabian’s "A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations." These publications discuss the research process, mechanics, format, bibliography style and documentation sources with examples of citation.

Step 4

Write your research information on index cards, with the source on the front and your notes on the back. For a book, write the name of the book, the author, the place and date of publication, the publisher and the page numbers. For a website, use the specific page, not just the homepage. For an encyclopedia, include the name of the series, the volume, the publisher, the date and place of publication and page numbers. See your style guide for more specific information about presenting your sources.

Step 5

On your index card, give each source a number. If you need more than one card for your notes, give each one the same number if they share the same source. Use this number system to keep track of your sources when you prepare your "Works Cited" list at the end of the essay.

Step 6

As you use research information in your essay in the form of a quote, paraphrase or summary, you must cite its source either in parenthetical documentation placed after the referenced material or by a footnote or endnote. Parenthetical documentation states the source of your reference with parentheses near the text. Footnotes typically appear at the bottom of the page; endnotes appear at the end of the essay. You must consult your style guide to follow the format correctly.


Do your research in a library, where you will have access to a variety of sources and the research librarian.


Use a flash drive that can travel from your home computer to the library computer.

Avoid plagiarism by using citation correctly. Plagiarism is considered a serious issue by colleges and universities.

Things You'll Need

  • Style guide
  • Flash drive
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