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Writing With Sources: How to Use Another Person's Ideas

Once you feel informed and confident in your research, the next step is to synthesize the ideas you’ve discovered and present them to the reader. It’s important to acknowledge sources in your writing to give credit to the original authors and also to strengthen your argument by showing you conducted adequate research.

Knowing when to cite

Writers are often confused about when and how to use citations, and when it’s necessary to attribute an idea to a source.

Rule of thumb: Any idea you discovered in your research should have a citation, even if you put it into your own words.

That means that all paraphrased, summarized, and quoted ideas need to be appropriately attributed to the source with a citation. Ask your professor which citation style you should use (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.)

You don’t need to cite things that are considered common knowledge, such as:

  • Facts found in many sources (Ex: Barack Obama is the 44th President of the U.S.)
  • Common sayings (Ex: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.)
  • Personal observations (Ex: More people use smartphones now than they did five years ago.)
Ways to Incorporate a Source


  • Putting a short passage from source material into your own words.
  • Can include specific examples and details from the text.

Note: Replacing a few words in a sentence with synonyms is not paraphrase.


  • Putting the main ideas of a source into your own words, including the purpose of the writing, its main points, and conclusions.
  • Does not always include specific examples; instead, it provides a broad overview.
  • Visit our guide for writing summaries.


So how do you know when to use which method?

Paraphrase or summarize a source when:

  • You want to use the details but the original language itself is not particularly striking or important to the point you want to make.

Quote a source when:

  • The words of an expert or reliable individual would support your point.
  • You’re going to discuss the author’s choice of words.
  • The wording is particularly memorable, vivid, or interesting.

Use a combination of all three methods to weave the research through the paper, rather than “patching” a paper together with large quotes or long summaries of texts. For example, when you first introduce the source, you may summarize an article’s main idea before paraphrasing specific passages that support your point, and/or quoting particular key phrases from the source.