Students in college write expository essays. They might write the occasional creative piece–fiction, or what is called (awkwardly) creative nonfiction–but there will be no getting around writing nonfiction essays intended to explain, interpret, or clarify some topic. I would submit that a student who can’t add or subtract could probably do just fine in college on the strength of good expository writing alone. Hell, I think it is probably, in terms of academic success, the single most important skill in the student arsenal.
The paragraph you just read is a piece of expository writing, but I want to describe the structure of a paragraph that incorporates a quotation:
Spectral evidence was just one manifestation of the invisible during the hysteria in Salem. According to the account of John Alden’s trial, it was “usual for the accusers to tell of the Black Man [Satan], or of a spectre, as being on the table…. The people about would strike with swords, or sticks at those places…sometimes the accusers would say they struck the spectre and it is reported several of the accused were hurt and wounded thereby” (32). According to the accusers, the specters were not only visible, but in some sense physical as well. Such spectacles made the invisible world even more palpable–even more real. The metaphysical, it seemed, encroached on the physical.
This paragraph contains three important elements that I would expect to see in virtually every paragraph in the body of a short analytical paper.
First: A clear topic sentence. Notice that his focus, “spectral evidence,” is in the subject position. This might seem obvious, but many writers will choose an awkward construction like the following: “During the Salem hysteria spectral evidence was just one manifestation of the invisible.” What is the subject of this sentence? Is it missing a comma?
Second: Relevant evidence is introduced and properly quoted.
Third: The evidence/quotation is analyzed to advance the argument. When I finish reading the paragraph, I know where the author is going: he will further discuss and refine his analysis of this curious physicality of the invisible.
I suggest that you strongly prefer this paragraph structure in your expository essays:
1. Clear topic sentence;
2. Evidence properly introduced (which will often mean placing it in the context of a larger work or issue), quoted, (though evidence can be summarized rather than quoted), and cited;
3. Discussion and analysis that develops the argument.
Students habitually make a butchery of quotations, and correcting the bloody mess is flat-out grading misery.
Integrating the quotation with the original writing seems to present the most difficulties. There are essentially two “rules” (maybe I should call them “guidelines”) to remember.
First, if you introduce the quotation with something that can stand on its own as a sentence, then place a colon at the end and quote away.
Dostoyevsky, in Notes from the Underground, suggests the rather unpleasant terms of the human existential condition: “I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I believe my liver is diseased” (1).
Second, if you do not introduce the quotation with what can stand on its own as a sentence, then you have to integrate the quotation in a way that maintains grammatical coherence. In other words, it must–quote and all–read as grammatically correct and consequently must observe appropriate punctuation (or lack of punctuation).
Dostoyevsky’s narrator sums up the dark view of the human condition when he states flatly that he is “a sick man” (1).
Notice that, in keeping with MLA guidelines, the parenthetical page citation is after the quotation marks and before the period.