In this series, we examine how Umberto Eco’s book, ‘How to Write a Thesis,’ can be used to help writers improve their focus, research smarter and get any writing project done faster. In part nine, we look at the art of quoting.

Before David Letterman created his top 10 lists for the ‘Late Show’, Umberto Eco made his top 10 rules for using quotes in writing. In his recently English-translated book, “How to Write a Thesis,” he explains how writers will quote many texts and they should know what to do with them.

Writers quote a myriad of texts in a work as layered as a thesis and those quotes often come from:

  • Primary sources
  • Critical literature of your work
  • Secondary sources

When quoting you are doing so for two main purposes:

  • Quoting a text that you will interpret
  • Quoting from a text you will use to support your interpretation

How much you quote — generously or sparingly — depends on the kind of thesis you are writing. But never hide behind a lot of quotes. Quoting is not a way to fill space, be lazy or let someone else do the work for you (or make something you said more meaningful by putting quotes around it).

An essay, thesis or long-form piece filled with quotes shows the writer hasn’t done all the work they should. Every quote needs to make a point, and be linked to what you are interpreting or be interpreted immediately after quoting it — if it doesn’t speak fully to your point.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Umberto Eco’s top 10 list for properly using quotes in writing:

10. Quotes are like testimony in a trial, and you must always be able to track down the witnesses and demonstrate their reliability.

Verifiable means adding the exact and accurate book and page number as a reference.

umberto eco's rules on how to quote

9. Quotes must be accurate.

Transcribe them exactly as they appear. If you omit something, you have to indicate it with an ellipsis. If you want to emphasize something at the end, you put that part in brackets [emphasis mine].

8. When a quote does not exceed two or three lines, you can insert it into the body of the text enclosed in quotation marks.

(See examples of short and long quotations, at MLA Formatting Quotations.)

7. The reference to the author and the work must be clear.

In the case where you are quoting one author interchangeable with another author; two different authors in one sentence, make sure your sentence structure and the correlating footnote credits the quotes to the proper author.

how to properly use quotes in writing

6. When your primary source is foreign, quote it in the original language.

Type the quote in French if it’s originally written in French, because translations to English could go half a dozen ways for a single phrase, as you can see with this Charles Baudelaire poem called “Meditation.” Then, add your translation, as this is an indication of your interpretative prowess, especially if you are weighing in on what you think the author meant amid many perspectives.

5. Quote your primary source from the critical edition or the most canonical edition.

This goes back to verifiability, the most official and most acknowledged version of the text.

tips for using quotes in writing

4. Make sure that the author and the source (print or manuscript) of your quote are clearly identifiable.

This goes for examples where you are continuously analyzing a single text. So you start your quote, insert page number at the end, quote some more and then insert page number, and finally give a reference for the single text and its source.

3. Readers may presume you share the opinion of the authors you quote.

If you don’t want this to happen, you must include your own critical remarks before or after the passage.

2. Quote critical literature.

But only when its authority corroborates or confirms your statements.

Quote the object of your interpretative analysis with reasonable abundance

1. Quote the object of your interpretative analysis with reasonable abundance.

For Rules 1 and 2: Watch out for banal statements that say a general thing that everyone knows. Such quotes don’t add anything to your own ideas. Is the quote pulled from someone who has some authority in the field? Beware of useless quotes.

Read other articles in this writing series: