Essay referencing can be a headache at university. How many references do you need? When should you use a reference? Should you use references even when you haven't used a direct quotation? How many references are too many? By knowing how to reference properly, you can reduce the stress involved in your essay writing.
To help make essay referencing easier, we've tackled a few of those niggling questions that should make the process a little smoother.
Why does referencing matter?
Including references in your essay is your way to show your markers that you've truly engaged with your subject matter. It is also important as it proves that you've read the key sources which relate to your topic. They additionally show that you've thought carefully about how each source relates to the subject you're writing about. The more helpful references you include, the more well-informed you appear to be about your topic. It’s not always about quantity, either. Quality sources which really inform your essay are really worth including.
Including a bibliography is good academic practice. If you go on to study further, write more about your subject or publish your work, giving kudos to the writers whose work you took information and inspiration from is essential. A bibliography also provides a helpful resource you can go back to and use for future work.
How many references is too many references?
Of course, it is possible to use too many references. If you are using references just to show off all the books you've read, this will be obvious and will not impress your markers. You need to choose the sources which really contribute to your essay; supporting your argument, contesting it or prompting interesting, relevant questions.
Remember, markers also want to see evidence of your own, original thinking. Using too many references does not leave much room for your personal standpoint to shine through. As a general rule, you should aim to use one to three, to support each key point you make. This of course depends on subject matter and the point you are discussing, but acts as a good general guide.
It can be useful to have a best practice breakdown of your essay to help you work out how many references to use. Here's a rough guide to help you get the balance right for any piece of academic work:
- Your introduction should make up approximately 10% of your essay. You may want to use one or two references to define your topic in this section, depending on your word count.
- The main body of your essay (which will include the key points in your argument) should make up approximately 75% of your essay. For example: In a 2000 word essay, you will have 1500 words to use. Each main point you make should typically use 1-3 paragraphs, which should average around 200-400 words in total. This will give you room for around 5 key points, each supported by 2 or 3 references. Try and use direct or primary references where possible. Sometimes you’ll need to use in-text references, too.
- Your conclusion should account for around 15% of your essay. You may wish to use 1-3 references to lend authority to your concluding statements. Of course, it is really hard to suggest exactly how many references your essay should include. This depends totally on the subject matter and word count. A Philosophy essay, for example, may have a lot of critical thinking and be quite theory-heavy, and for this reason you may need more references than a typical English Literature Essay. This is just an example – you’ll need to consider your own subject matter and topic.
When to use references
References aren't just used to give credit for quotations. They can be used to indicate that an idea, concept, fact or theory has come directly from a particular reference. Other instances when references must be used include:
And if you've used any information or ideas from:
- Computer programmes
- Any external source
Stuck with referencing your essay?
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As a college student, I majored in journalism. That means I have a lot of experience in all types of writing. In order to major in a communications-related field, students must take a rigorous schedule of English courses, which means a whole lot of essay writing.
I quickly adapted a method of essay writing, which I believe simplifies and streamlines the process.
What’s the trick? Instead of sitting down and writing an essay, from start to finish, as many students do, it’s much easy (and way less time consuming) to do all of your research beforehand, placing each item into a basic outline.
From there, the outline contains all of the information you need to create your essay and, the essay essentially writes itself.
The only work left will be filler writing to explain your thought processes.
Here’s how you can format your essay outline (Note: the example below has three paragraphs, but additional paragraphs can be added as necessary.):
I. Introduction paragraph:
a. What you’d like to discuss within your introduction paragraph
b. Quotes or references, if any
II. Thesis statement: What’s the main point of your essay? Decide what you want to convey in your essay and put it into words. Your entire essay will revolve around this point, so make sure you’re clear and concise in your phrasing. (This is usually placed near the end of your introduction paragraph.)
III. First paragraph topic that supports your thesis
a. List supporting quotes/references: Find quotes from reputable sources that support what you’ve stated within your thesis and that relate to your first paragraph topic.
IV. Second paragraph topic that supports your thesis
a. List supporting quotes/references: Find quotes from reputable sources that support what you’ve stated within your thesis and that relate to your second paragraph topic.
V. Third paragraph topic that supports your thesis
a. List supporting quotes/references: Find quotes from reputable sources that support what you’ve stated within your thesis and that relate to your third paragraph topic.
VI. Conclusion paragraph: Note what you’d like to say within your conclusion paragraph. Your conclusion paragraph should detail how you are going to unite the topics from your aforementioned topics and weave them together into one solid point. Students commonly mistake a conclusion paragraph as a summary paragraph when, in fact, it’s really an opportunity to drive home your argument. Your conclusion should round out your essay and unite your paragraphs together, solidifying your thesis.
a. Additional quotes or references, if any
VII. List all citations: As you find each quote or reference to include within your essay, make sure to cite each reference, so you won’t have to scramble at the end to go back to your sources to see where you found each quotation. List each citation on your outline so it’s already finished before you even complete your essay. That way, it’s one less thing to worry about.
By following this outline format, the work of your essay is already clearly mapped out ahead of time. You already know what you want to say and how you’re going to say it and you have all of the support to back up each theory.
This method takes the stress out of essay writing because it eliminates guesswork; struggling for the right idea or argument and helps you ensure your thesis is strong. If you’re not able to easily fill out the outline, your thesis isn’t strong or clear enough and your essay topic will likely not be a winner as a result.
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