The Writing Center @ The University of Wisconsin - Madison

Review of Documentation Styles

Quoting vs. Referring

Documentation styles provide methods for you to cite (refer to the original source of) the information you quote from or refer to in your paper. The difference between quoting and referring may seem small, but it is significant; therefore, some documentation styles emphasize the former, while others focus on the latter.

You should provide a quotation from a source when the wording of the original is important. If the author makes a point in a particularly insightful, original, or concise way, then you should allow that author's words to speak for themselves. This is most often done in humanities disciplines, such as the study of history and literature, because often the words used are as important as the meaning they convey. Thus, the primary documentation style used in the humanities, that of the Modern Language Association (MLA), allows for page numbers alone to appear after quotations; the author and work are usually clear from the context in which the quotation appears.

In the scientific disciplines, by contrast, quotation is less often used than reference. The purpose of referring to the previous research of others is to establish findings and evaluate results; the word choice of individual scientists is less important. Therefore, the documentation style established by the American Psychological Association (APA) provides for author and date to be provided after a reference; the page number is omitted unless a quotation is included (it often isn't).

An example may be helpful here. The author of the first passage wishes to capture the flavor of the original by quoting; the author of the second simply wishes to refer to the original to help make a point.


In the state of nature, Hobbes considered "the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (207).


Theories of the primitive state of nature abounded at this time (Hobbes, 1651).

The question of when to refer and when to quote is one that can only be answered within the context of the purpose of your paper. If you are writing a literary analysis, direct quotation of the text will allow you to perform a more specific, concrete analysis. If you are writing a research project, however, it is much more important that you refer to previous research and provide summaries of findings.

Citing sources

The mechanics of citing sources will vary from style to style, but there are two primary methods of giving citations: parenthetical (in-text) references and notes. Although most documentation styles provide guidelines for both in-text references and notes, each is generally identified with one or the other.

Parenthetical references

Systems of parenthetical reference have become popular in the past twenty years or so. Their greatest strength from the standpoint of the reader is that they don't obligate the reader to search for citations at the bottom of the page or at the end of the document; all necessary information is located in the text, immediately following the quotation or reference. From the standpoint of the writer, parenthetical reference styles are much easier than notes to format and keep track of (although most word processors will handle this automatically).

Parenthetical references work in conjunction with the list of sources that appears at the end of your document. That is, the information that appears in parentheses after a quotation or reference allows the reader to turn to the list of sources and identify which one is being cited. Thus, if a particular author has more than one entry in the list of sources, your parenthetical reference must give enough information to allow the reader to identify which work is being cited. This may involve including the year of publication, or a shortened version of the title, or both.

The information provided in the parenthetical reference varies from style to style. Because the chronology of previous research is important in evaluating its usefulness, the APA style requires the date to be included with the author's name. Other styles, such as the MLA style, require only the page number for quotations (as long as there will be no confusion as to which work is being cited).


The citation of materials in footnotes (appearing at the bottom of the page) and endnotes (appearing at the end of the document, usually beginning on a separate sheet) is a more traditional method for identifying original sources. One advantage of giving citations in notes is that the reader will not be interrupted by sometimes lengthy references in the text. And now that word processors are able to manage the formatting of notes automatically, the writer no longer needs to set aside time to adjust the spacing of every page to accomodate them.

Unlike the parenthetical-reference styles, note-based styles do not require the appending of a list of sources. Instead, complete bibliographic information is provided in the first note that cites a work; subsequent notes referring to that work will use a shortened version of the citation. Therefore, the author need not worry about omitting any works from a list of sources, or accidentally including any that aren't actually referred to or quoted from.

The style established by the University of Chicago (commonly referred to as the Chicago style) is the most commonly used for notes, although the citation-sequence style adopted by the Council of Science Editors (CBE) and the Numbered References style both call for citations to appear in notes.

Lists of sources

As mentioned in the section on parenthetical references above, references in the text of a paper must work in conjunction with an appended list of sources.

Documentation styles have different names for these lists; the MLA calls it "Works Cited," while the APA designates it simply "References."

Each documentation style establishes strict rules for the construction and formatting of the list of sources. In fact, a large proportion of the manual for each style is devoted to these rules and examples of them.

The Writing Center Documentation style pages provide the basic rules for each style, with examples you can follow.

Paper Formats

Almost all of the documentation styles offer guidelines for the appearance of your final draft.

However, all of the style guides defer to the requirements of the individual assignment. Therefore, you should follow your course instructor's instructions for preparing the final draft.

Page formatting

Most documentation styles call for a minimum of one inch of space on all sides, and for all elements of your text to be double-spaced.

The appearance of certain elements, such as page numbers, indented quotations, and title pages varies; check with the documentation style you're using for specifics.


You may find that dividing a longer paper into sections with headings helps you organize it more effectively.

If this is the case, you should find out if the documentation style you're using establishes standards for their appearance.

The APA style's headings structure, for example, is quite detailed, while the MLA style establishes no standard for headings.

Indexes and tables of contents

If your document is long enough to require an index or a table of contents, you should check the style manual for the documentation style you're using.

If that style offers no specific guidance, you may consult the Chicago Manual of Style, whose advice in these areas can be relied upon in the absence of other instructions.