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Conquer referencing

The quality of your referencing can make or break an essay

So how do you get something so complex right? Here are five tips to make sure you start strong!

1. Don't save referencing until last

It can be tempting to write your whole essay then add in referencing as a final step. This usually has pretty disastrous consequences and will cost you time in the long run. Referencing is something you need to commit to for the entire duration of your project. As you find appropriate sources, make sure you note down their full bibliographical details. If you take an idea or a quotation from a specific page, pay attention to what that page number is. Otherwise, you'll need to backtrack - a big waste of time!


Leaving referencing too late also increases your chance of missing key information in your citations. Remember, you will need specific details like date, publisher (and often location), or a page span for texts like journal articles. Do you really want to go back to the library or open all your files again just to find a little detail you could have noted at the beginning? That's not the best way to spend your final hours before an essay is due!

2. Make sure you know what style guide to use

There are many style guides out there. Did your marker want Chicago? Footnote or in-text? Did they ask you for Harvard? APA? If you don't know, find out! There are big differences between these styles - especially in-text versus footnote. Never mix style guides together. Your job is to choose one and stick with it.


You should also be aware that style guides are periodically updated to reflect changes in sources and referencing needs. For example, APA 7 has recently superseded APA 6. Now, you no longer need to give publisher locations or have unnecessary framing around URLs and DOIs. This reflects the rise of digital sources.


It would be a shame to lose marks simply because you went for the wrong style. This happens all the time and is frustrating for your marker as well as for you. Your marker will be checking to make sure you can handle this core academic skill, so don't throw away marks just because you didn't read your instructions thoroughly.

3. Make sure you know when to reference

As a general rule, referencing too much is better than too little. But best of all is knowing exactly when a citation is needed. A good approach is to use a citation when you take a quotation, fact, or idea from another author. This includes material that you paraphrased or summarised. Make sure your marker can get a firm idea of where your own ideas begin and end versus ideas from other people. For example:


Sociology is a very important area of study. As Huang argues, "Sociology is core to understanding the human world" (2021, 3). A similar claim is predominant throughout the work of Luc (2019).


In this sample, it is obvious what text is taken from another author called Huang, what idea comes from an author called Luc, and what text is commentary from the student. As you can see, referencing helps you to be clear about what ideas come from which authors - including your own original conclusions. Careful referencing helps with your academic honesty and also lets your marker appreciate when your own ideas are at the forefront.

4. Learn to identify the kind of source you are looking at

This is easier said than done! Can you tell the difference between a monograph versus an edited volume? You will need to, because they require different referencing styles. You also need to know what kind of text you are viewing online. Just because a source is located on the internet, doesn't mean citing it as a website is the most accurate choice. For example, many government documents or eBooks can be found through online databases but require a unique citation style.

This is the kind of task that gets easier with experience. In the meantime, don't be scared to ask your lecturer or tutor what kind of source you're looking at and what the citation requirements might be. If you're still confused, ask how they can tell. This will get you on the right path for knowing what you're citing and how to do it.

5. Embrace citation management software

As you can see, referencing can be quite fussy and requires extreme precision. It can also take up large quantities of your time. A great way of solving these issues is though citation management software - programs that collate and format your sources for you! Unless your assessment specifically requires you to format citations by hand (unlikely!), then give citation management software a try.

Citation management software is a much better choice than copying and pasting from recommended citations in databases and journal homepages. Online citation generation sites can be helpful, but they won't do important formatting work like providing a hanging indent or arranging your texts in alphabetical order.

So what software to choose? At Way of the Scholar, we love Zotero (not sponsored!). It's easy to learn, free, and many sources can be added easily to your database using their DOI. This means your typing requirements are minimal. For some more complex projects you might want to use software like EndNote. If so, check to see if your university library offers a free download and/or training sessions. Chances are, they will!

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