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“How to use quotes in an essay”

You’ve probably been told by your teachers that you need to include quotes in your essays, but do you know how to do it right?

Over the years I’ve noticed that students get taught lots of different things about using quotes. Some teachers say that they must be four words or less, others don’t mind. Some teachers want three quotes per paragraph, others think you should use your own words. How do you work out what to do?


Really there are only a few actual RULES that most people agree on, and they are about the way you insert quotes into sentences. You have to make them part of a sentence, not just plonk them down in your paragraph. Let’s go back to the essay on the Hunger Games we’ve been working on and look at the first paragraph:

After the Districts’ unsuccessful revolt 75 years ago, the Capitol designed the Hunger Games as a way to divide and therefore control them. As Katniss says, ‘the real message is clear. “Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you.”‘ Separating the Districts, in fact enclosing them, is a high barbed wire fence. It is almost impossible to travel beyond the fence, or meet people from other Districts. The Capitol’s system consists of different Districts providing different resources, such as coal, timber and crops for the Capitol. The citizens of the Capitol live like royalty, while the citizens of most Districts are poor and exploited. Katniss is forced to break the rules and enter the dangerous forest just so her family has something to eat. While districts like Katniss’ suffer to survive, Districts 1, 2 and 4 live better than the rest. They are also allowed to train their tributes for the Hunger Games – giving their tributes a massive advantage and earning them the nickname ‘Careers’. This is part of the Capitol’s divide-and-rule strategy, as Districts 1, 2 and 4 provide soldiers for the Capitol and support their oppression of the other Districts.

Look at the quote in the second sentence. I haven’t done much, but I’ve made it part of a sentence that starts with ‘As Katniss says…’. This connects it with the point I’m making in the sentence before, and makes it clear that it is Katniss who says the quote.

Why did I choose this quote? In general there are two reasons to choose a quote.


1) It makes your writing better

I could have said: ‘The Games also demonstrate to the Districts that they are completely powerless, as they cannot even protect their own children. This discourages them from taking any action against the Capitol for fear of even worse reprisals’, but the way Katniss said it is better– more interesting, more emotional, shorter – basically she already knocked it out of the park and I can’t top it. (If you’re writing a humanities essay you might include a quote if someone has done a great explanation of a concept you’re discussing).

If we do them right quotes make essays better. It’s not a rule that you have to include them (unless it actually is a rule in the assignment you’re doing), but it’s a good rule of thumb to have a quote or two in most paragraphs. This is particularly important in a text response essay, as it’s an easy way to help make sure that you’re doing a close reading of the text.


2) The quote is important

You can also include a quote if it’s really important and you want to analyse it. For example, if you were writing about gender in Macbeth you would definitely want to discuss Lady Macbeth asking the spirits to ‘unsex me here’. If you’re doing an essay on the history of refugee policy in Australia, you might want to anlayse Prime Minister John Howard’s famous quote: ‘We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances under which they come!’.



Do they have to be short? Some people say quotes should always be four words or less, and these short quotes are great as well (you’ll notice at the bottom of the paragraph I’ve included the one word quote ‘Careers’). The main problem with longer quotes is that you can end up just plonking down a quote and not doing enough of your own analysis. It’s sort of the same problem as spending too much time retelling the plot. But as you can see in the paragraph above it can work well, so it’s not a hard and fast rule. Personally I like to include a mix of shorter and longer.



Quotes can be a bit tricky – and you may be taught different things by different teachers – but if you keep these ideas in mind you’ll probably do a good job.