When instructors talk about citations, it can seem like they’re speaking a foreign language: In-Text? Parenthetical? References? Footnotes? What does it all mean? If the thought of a research paper with citations has your stomach in knots, read on for our easy citation guide.

Citations are Necessary

Including citations is like marking the trail you took through your paper to your conclusion so that someone else could go back and follow your footsteps. It shows honesty about your research process, so it’s necessary, no matter how intimidating it seems.

Follow the Rules

Citations are as easy as following a list of rules. Different instructors ask you to use different formats: MLA, APA, Chicago. Therefore, you just need to find and follow the rules for whichever citation format you are assigned.

Find Help Online or in Print

You can look up the rules for each format using the Online Writing Lab (OWL) from Purdue University or a book like A Pocket Style Manual. Also, some instructors have their own guidelines that they communicate through videos or in class; pay attention to assignment sheets and style guides you get from instructors as well. If you have questions, your campus Writing Center is happy to help!

What to Include

Citations in any of the APA, MLA, and Chicago-style formats must have two parts:

  1. the short reference in the body of your paper to show where you’ve put the full publication information for the source (also called the “in-text citation;” it can be a superscript number and a footnote for Chicago style or a parenthetical citation for MLA or APA).
  2. a list of the full publication information for all your sources, usually at the end of your paper (it may be called a Works Cited page in MLA, a References page in APA, or a Bibliography page in Chicago).

Cite, Cite, Cite

Don’t forget to cite any idea, information, or argument that you get from a source, even if you put it into different words. If you do take a quote or even particular words from your source, put these in quotations marks.


Pay attention to small details. Look at sample papers for the citation format you’re using. Check to make sure your paper matches. For instance, if you’re using APA, that format has a running header that is in ALL CAPS. Is yours?

The easy answer is to use an automatic format like Microsoft Word 2007, Microsoft Word 2013, or EasyBib that will do the citations for you. Be warned: All citations engines can make mistakes. Make sure you check any citations you get from a citation engine against the style guide, looking at the small details. You’re still responsible for the citation, even if you get it from an automated source, which means you have to be sure it’s right.

Need Help?

Most college campuses have writing centers, and Front Range is no exception. Each campus has a writing center, and there’s also an online writing center.  All writers, no matter how experienced, benefit from an extra pair of eyes looking at their work.  Take the time to have someone look over your work before submitting it—those little mistakes can add up!  Finally, know that writing is a lifelong skill that is needed in every job and in everyday life.  The more you practice now, the easier it will get.  Good luck!


What helps you with citations? What are common citation errors that you see?

Related Posts