Documentation and formatting

Sometimes, citation style and formatting can seem like the most daunting – and the most tedious – part of writing a research paper. Following guidelines about margin sizes, cover pages, and detailed citations can seem like stuffy, academic nonsense and a waste of time for a paper that is most likely only going to be read by your professor. Though it is true that these details are secondary to content, they are not just torture devices designed by your professor to make you suffer and give them something to laugh about with other professors in the faculty lounge: there are actual, legitimate reasons for following these rules and learning appropriate style techniques.

Avoiding plagiarism is the most frequently discussed reason for following citation guidelines. Most of your professors have probably talked to you about this, so I won’t go into excruciating detail and give you a speech you’ve already heard. It’s pretty simple: you have to give credit where credit is due. Not giving your sources credit is stealing. It’s cheating. Don’t do it.

But why use these standard, field-specific styles? Why not just write a note at the end of your paper that tells where you got your information?

When you write a research paper, what you are essentially doing is entering into an academic conversation about the topic you’ve chosen (or been assigned) to address. You’re communicating what you understand about a given subject to an audience, and possibly pointing out something new about a topic that no one has thought of before. Proper documentation of the resources from which you gained your knowledge backs up your point; sloppy or incorrect documentation hurts your credibility (and your grade).

Documentation/citation styles are, much like grammar, or written music, or Latin classifications of plant and animal life (there is, I’m sure, a fancier word for this, but I’m not a biology major), codes that exist within a group – in this case, an academic field – to help people communicate. When you as a writer don’t follow these guidelines, your credibility is hurt. You and your audience have entered into an agreement to use these means to talk about this subject, and you’ve broken that agreement. Oops.

Now that you’re committed to learning and following style and citation guidelines, there is one obvious problem: they can be hard to master. They’re complicated. They’re technical. Lucky for you, there’s also an obvious answer!

We here at the WKU Writing Center really want to help you! As students of English and writing, we’re well versed in MLA style and documentation guidelines, but we’re also familiar with APA and other styles. If you bring in something we’re not familiar with, we can figure it out together.

It’s also important to note that we writing tutors, just like you, are only human. I look up details about MLA style nearly every time I write a paper. Almost no one has this stuff memorized – if you do, I want to know your secret. A really great resource for information about documentation style is the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). This website has lots of helpful information about both MLA and APA documentation – I use it pretty much every time I have to cite something – and lots of other nifty writing tips as well.

Happy writing!

Rachel

This post was originally published on October 17, 2013.

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