How to Cite an Essay


How to Cite an Essay

Pages:16 (5096 words)


Topic:Academic Writing

Document Type:Writing Guide



References, citations, bibliographies: what does it all mean and why is it important?

This article will show you how to cite sources in an essay you write for any level of school or for work.

If you are confused or frustrated by the process of citing sources in an essay, term paper, research paper, book report, or dissertation, you are not alone. Citing sources within the body of an essay and in the bibliography can be cumbersome and tedious.

This is certainly not the best part of writing an essay or term paper, which is why you stumbled upon this article. So let’s deal with it. Let’s deal with the drudgery of how to cite sources in an essay so that it can at least flow faster for you the next time you write.

Why Cite an Essay?

If you are new to academic writing, the concept of citing sources will also be new to you. Citing sources is one of the most important aspects of academic writing. The reason why you need to cite sources is that if you do not, you could get accused of plagiarism.

Preventing Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a serious accusation and a serious offence. Just one incident of plagiarism can ruin your entire academic career. Plagiarism is a form of theft, if you copy and paste words directly from another source into your own without citing the source.

If you reword what you take from another source without giving credit properly, then you are still plagiarizing. Plagiarizing is unethical and dishonest, and it will get you into trouble.

Also, did you know how easy it is to get caught plagiarizing?

Using simple and sometimes free online tools, teachers at all levels of school can quickly run your essay or term paper through plagiarism detection software.

Don’t take any chances. Follow the tips in this handy guide and you will be well on your way to protecting yourself from any accusations of plagiarism. Learning how to cite sources in an essay properly is the best way to prevent plagiarism in your work.

When to Cite Sources in an Essay

Students new to essay and term paper writing often become confused about when they need to cite sources.

As you get used to the process of academic writing, it will become easier to tell the difference between what can be considered “common knowledge,” and what you need to cite. In the meantime, cite anything that did not come from your own head or consult a writing tutor or instructor with any specific questions about what content you need to cite.

How to Cite Sources in an Essay

Another source of confusion for students is the fact that there are many different ways to cite sources in an essay. In fact, some would argue that there are too many ways to cite sources in an essay.

Some teachers will ask you to cite sources in APA format. APA stands for the American Psychological Association. However, the APA style of citations is used beyond the field of psychology. It is one of the most popular forms of citation used in academic writing.

If you were asked to use APA style to format your paper and your citations, this guide will help you.

Likewise, you may be asked to use the MLA format. MLA stands for the Modern Language Association, and is used more for literature papers.

Before You Begin

Unfortunately, citation formats change regularly—sometimes every single year.

Keeping up to date with the most recent minutia dictating how to cite sources with precision requires that you refer directly to the official style guide of organizations like the American Psychological Association or the Modern Language Association.

Should I Use a Citation Generator?

You can use an online citation generator, but you do not have to in order to prepare correct citations in your essay or term paper.

It can be risky to rely too much on online citation generators. Why?

For one, they are automated, and may not give you the correct results. The best way to cite your sources is to do it yourself.

Second, the online citation generators may not be able to handle different types of sources such as multimedia files. This guide will be better for showing you how to cite sources.

Finally, it is a good idea to practice citing sources yourself. Relying too much on the citation generators prevents you from becoming faster at inserting the in-text citations and formatting the bibliography pages. If you intend to continue your academic journey through undergraduate and graduate school, it is a good idea to get used to writing your own in-text citations and bibliography pages.

What is a Citation?

A citation is a reference to the original source, placed within your document—your own essay or term paper.

Did you ever read a book that had footnotes at the bottom of the page, or endnotes at the end of the chapter or book? Those are citations.

Similarly, you will come across citations within the body of the text. Known as in-text citations, these usually come in the form of parentheses. Therefore, these types of in-text citations are called “parenthetical citations,” and are commonly used in academic writing.

APA and MLA, two of the most common citation formats in academic writing, use parenthetical citations.

In some citation formatting systems, such as Chicago or Turabian style, you can use parentheticals but more often you will be asked to use footnotes. Footnotes are tedious to format using software like MS Word, but over time you can get the hang of it.

Difference Between Citation and Reference?

A citation and a reference are basically the same thing. It might help to think of the citation as the specific block of text or information being cited, and the reference as the original source.

Any in-text citation or footnote will refer to, or point to, an entry in your bibliography page. The bibliography page The bibliography page may be called many things including the the References page (when using APA format) or the Works Cited page (when using MLA format). The Chicago style calls it the Bibliography.

Remember, you need both. You need an in-text citation somewhere indicating where you got the information in a quote, a sentence, paragraph, or block of text. That in-text citation points to an entry in your final list of references: also known as the bibliography or works cited page.

The in-text citation may be a “parenthetical,” which uses parentheses (Like This, 2019, p. 5).

Or, as with Chicago format, your in-text citation may be in the form of a footnote.[1]

Difference between References, Bibliography, and Works Cited

Nothing. These are all different words and phrases that mean the same thing: a comprehensive list of all the sources (references, such as books or journal articles) that you used to write your paper.

The only difference between a References page, a Bibliography page, and a Works Cited page is the style or format you have been asked to use.

If you use APA format, then your list of references will be called the References page.

If you use MLA format, your list will be called Works Cited.

If you use Chicago/Turabian, your list will be called a Bibliography.

The term “bibliography” specifically means a list of books, which is why the terms “References,” or “Works Cited” may be more accurate in some cases. If you are writing an art history or music paper, for instance, you will include in your list of references the works of art or music discussed in the body of your essay.

What Can I Cite as a Reference?

You can cite anything used to write your paper, even an interview with a person, an email, or a photograph.

In fact, you must cite all your sources properly if you want to avoid plagiarism and get the outcome you want in terms of grades or accolades.

How Do I Know What Format to Use

The only way to really know for sure what format to use is to ask your teacher or professor. If you are writing for a professional publication such as a journal or magazine, it is better to contact the editorial staff.

If you have been asked to choose your own citation format based on personal preferences, then you have a choice. Use whichever formatting makes sense to you, or the one you feel most comfortable using.

Generally, APA format is used in the social sciences, including economics, business, and nursing.

MLA format is used most in language arts, including literature but also theater and other humanities subjects.

The Chicago/Turabian style is sometimes used in history and military papers.

International students may also be familiar with other citation formats, such as the Harvard style.

Just in case you thought it wasn’t complicated enough, some specific subjects or academic fields have their own citation format. For example, the American Sociological Association has its own style called, naturally, the ASA style of formatting.

This guide will provide the tools you can use for most of the popular citation formats.

Let’s Get Started on Citing Sources!

The best way to begin citing sources in your essay or term paper is to first compile the fill list of all the sources you used, from advertisements to interviews, from songs to magazine articles, from academic journal articles to books.

With few exceptions, you will be listing your final bibliography/works cited/references page in alphabetical order.

If you are only interested in avoiding accusations of plagiarism, you should list all sources even if you did not include an in-text citation directly pointing to that source. However, if you are using APA or MLA formats, you should only list the sources that are paired with at least one in-text citation.

Preparing a References Page in APA Format

Step One

List all sources in alphabetical order.

Start with the author’s last name. If there is no author, or if the author is an organization, start with the first “real” word in the title.

Example of alphabetical list:

Allen, B.

Aslan, L.

“Associated Things.”

The Association of Underachievers

Biggles, M.

In APA format, only the last name is spelled out in full. Initials are used for the first name and any other names.

            Example: Reagan, N.

            Example: Hermann, N.T.

If there is more than one author, continue to use the same format. If there are two authors, use the ampersand “&” symbol.

            Example: Yoora, L. & Leslie, C.

 If there are between 3 and 7 authors, separate the names with a comma. Use an ampersand before the final name, as follows:

Example: Reagan, N., Tumba, W., & Darwin, C.

Example: Reagan, N, Tumba, W., Darwin, C., Yoora, L, & Leslie, C.

If there are 7 or more authors, list the first six, followed by an ellipsis (...), followed by the last author’s name.

Example: Reagan, N, Tumba, W.L., Darwin, C., Yoora, L, Leslie, C., Hermann, N.T,...Oolong, T.

When the author is an organization, do not reverse the order of words. Just list the full name of the organization.

Example: National Institutes of Health

Example: American Psychological Association

Step Two

After the author’s name(s), insert the publication date.


Boone, D. (1910).

Fuggles, M. & Warlock, D. (2018).

The Pine Cone Society (2011).

If you have more than one source by the same author, then sort those entries by date. You will list the earliest year of publication first.


Lawrence, T. (2008).

Lawrence, T. (2011).

Lawrence, T. (2013).

If there are two or more sources by the same author and published in the same year, then organize them alphabetically according to the title, but also letter each entry as follows:


Lawrence, T. (2008a).

Lawrence, T. (2008b).

This way, when you cite the source in the body of the text using an in-text parenthetical citation, you are pointing to the correct source!

Step Three

Now, write the title of the article, book, or whatever the source may be.

The most common sources you will use in academic essays include journal articles (articles published in scholarly journals), and books.

In some cases, you will cite websites, art, music, film, an interview, or multimedia.

The title of the article, book, or work of art will be printed only with the first letter capitalized. With a book, you will use italics. With an article, you will not.


Cromwell, O. (2019). The rain falls in Africa.

Austen, J. (2017). Another book about relationships.

If the article is published online, just write the title as if it were a journal article

However, if it is a PDF file, print [PDF] after the title:

Oliver, C. (2008). How to feed a cat [PDF file].

Step Four

Now list the name of the journal (for a journal article), or the name of the book (for when you cite only one chapter in the book).

Please note that in APA format, quotation marks are not used for article titles. You only capitalize the first word in the title of both journal articles and books. However, the titles of academic journals, newspapers, and other parent publications are written with each word capitalized.


Cromwell, O. (2019). The rain falls in Africa. Weather Patterns in Human History.

Oliver, C. (2007). How to feed a cat what it really wants. American Journal of Pets and Veterinary Science.

For books, now you would list the place of publication and the name of the publisher.

Austen, J. (2017). Another book about relationships. New York, NY: Donder House.

Camus, Y. (2011). The way the wind blows. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Articles in a Scholarly Journal

When you use APA format to list articles in a scholarly journal in the references list, you also need to include the volume and the issue number.

The format is generally: Title of Periodical, volume #(issue #),


Peterson, O. (1995). Biochemical reactions in intestinal flora. Journal of Gastrointestinal Diseases, 12(5): 9-18.

How to Cite Different Types of References in APA Format

  • Websites

When citing material from a website, use the author’s name or the organization as the author, followed by the title. Include the URL of the website by indicating “Retrieved from:”

UNSW (2020). Citing different sources. Retrieved from:

  • Films

When citing a film, use the name of the producer in what would otherwise be the author field. The reference list entry should look like this:

Producer, P. P. (Producer), & Director, D. D. (Director). (Date of publication). Title of motion picture [Motion picture]. Country of origin: Studio or distributor.


Television is cited differently from films, with the writer and director being given credit:

Writer, W. W. (Writer), & Director, D. D. (Director). (Date of broadcast or copyright). Title of broadcast [Television broadcast or Television series]. In P. Producer (Producer). City, state of origin: Studio or distributor.

How to Use APA Format to Cite Sources In the Essay

The References page is only part of the work. Now, you also have to include an in-text citation in APA format.

Any time you quote directly, paraphrase, or otherwise refer to a source in your references page, insert an in-text citation.

The way you will insert an in-text citation can vary. Also, the way you format the in-text citation depends on factors such as the number of authors or whether there is an author at all.

Here are some examples of using in-text citations in APA format:

Paraphrase of a Single Author (Book or Article)

There are several ways to use an internal citation for paraphrased material. If you are paraphrasing or simply referencing without a direct quotation, you do not need to include a page number.

The rice that grows on the southern slopes of Mount Agung is generally of better quality than the rice that grows on the northern slopes (Wayan, 1995).

According to Wayan (1995), the rice that grows on the southern slopes of Mount Agung is generally of better quality than the rice that grows on the northern slopes.

Wayan (1995) claims the rice that grows on the southern slopes of Mount Agung is generally of better quality than the rice that grows on the northern slopes.

Note how all of the above accomplish the exact same goal. The only difference is how you structure the paraphrased material to incorporate the parenthetical in-text citation.

It may be a good idea to practice all the ways you can include an in-text citation to make your paper easier to read and also more sophisticated.

Quote from a Single Author (Book or Article)

Unlike paraphrased citations in the body of your essay, you do need to include the exact page number when quoting directly from the text.

According to the Elementary School Teacher Association (2018), “teachers are among the most underappreciated, overworked, and underpaid Americans,” (p. 1).

“Teachers are among the most underappreciated, overworked, and underpaid Americans,” (Elementary School Teacher Association, 2018, p. 1).

In-Text Citations of Multi-Author Sources in APA Format

  • When there are two authors:


According to Simon & Garfunkel (2018), the sound of silence is louder than most people think.

  • When there are between 3 and 5 authors:

Use the full word “and” if you weave the citation into the sentence as follows:


According to Crosby, Stills, and Nash (2018), you need to love the one you are with before you can become truly happy.

Use an “&” sign if you place the citation separately, as such:


You should “love the one you’re with,” (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 2018, p. 5).

When there are 6 or more authors:

Use only the first author’s last name, and then write “et al.” Note that “et” does not have a period after it, but “al.” does because “al.” is an abbreviation of a Latin word. The phrase “et al.” just means “and the others.”


“When a tree falls in Brooklyn, everyone hears it,” (Pensky, et al., 2011, p. 15).

Pensky et al. (2011) claims that everyone hears it when trees fall in Brooklyn.

Special Types of Citations in APA Format

  • Personal Communication

Personal communications, such as personal emails or telephone conversations exchanged between you and a source, do need to be cited in the body of your essay. However, personal communications do not need to be given a separate entry in the list of references.

The format for personal communications in-text citations is as follows:

"The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire!” (F. Wiggins, personal communication, January 12, 2020).

F. Wiggins claimed that the roof was on fire but that we did not need any water (personal communication, January 12, 2020).

For more detailed instructions on how to use APA format to cite sources in your essay or term paper, refer to the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL)  or better yet, use the most recent version of the official APA style guide.

How to Use MLA Format to Cite Sources

The Modern Language Association (MLA) format has become increasingly popular.

The Works Cited Page

In MLA format, your list of references is called the Works Cited page. It includes every source you cited in the body of your essay or term paper.

List all the sources in alphabetical order starting with the author’s last name. If there is no author, then file according to the title.

For example:

Allen, Wrigley. Once Upon a Time.

Bunny, Bugs. Too Many Carrots.

Mouse, Mickey. The Dark Side of Disney.

MLA has recently changed their rules for how to format sources in the Works Cited page. Please consult the most recent MLA guide and your instructor about the preferred format for your essay.

For more detailed instructions on how to use MLA format to cite sources in your essay or term paper, refer to the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) for assistance or to the most recent version of the official MLA style guide.

How to Cite Books in MLA Format for the Works Cited Page

MLA uses a simple format for book entries in the Works Cited page.

You may choose to include the city of publication if the book shows that there may be many different editions.

  • Books with One Author


Dyer, Ulrich. Growing Up in Wayne’s Shadow. Hill House, 2015.

Dyer, Ulrich. Growing Up in Wayne’s Shadow. New York: Hill House, 2015.

Books with an organization as the author are also listed alphabetically within the same list:

Ulrich, John. Nine Miles to Freedom. Kansas State University Press, 1995.

United States Army. Combat Manual. Department of Defense, 2014.

Likewise, books without an author are listed alphabetically according to the title. Ignore articles like “The” and conjunctions like “And” when alphebetizing.

  • Books with Two Authors

When you cite books with more than one author, the first author’s name is printed last name, first name. However, all subsequent names are written in the standard fashion with first name and last name.


Allman, Greg, and Duane Allman. Brothers Eating Peaches. Sony Books, 2000.

  • Books with Three or More Authors

When you cite books with three or more authors, you only need to list the first author’s name, followed by “et al.”


Oppenheimer, Greg, et al. A Story of Life. University of Florida Press, 2017.

  • More Than One Work By the Same Author

  • When you have more than one work by the same author, only list the author’s name once.
  • In lieu of writing the author’s name again, use “---.” Instead for all subsequent entries.
  • List all the author’s books in alphabetical order by title.


Inniskillin, David. Gender, Race, and Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa. Penguin, 2013.

---. Historical Divisions in Social Class Among the Bantu People. Harvard University Press, 2001.

  • Translated Editions

There are two different ways to cite translated editions in MLA format in the Works Cited page.

When it is important that you distinguish one translated edition from another, you may list the translator’s name instead of the author’s name in the Works Cited page and also in the in-text citations.

If, however, you just want to indicate which edition of a translated work you cited in the body of the text, still use the author’s name in the Works Cited list and also in the in-text citations.

When the translation is important:

Jones, Mitchell, translator. The Odyssey. By Homer. Penguin, 1995.

When the translation is not important:

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Mitchell Jones, Penguin, 1995.

How to Format Journal or Magazine Articles in MLA Works Cited Page


Blakely, Anna. “At the Forefront of the Revolution: Voices of Women in Colonial America.” Journal of American History, vol 29, no. 2, 2014, pp. 4-19.

  • Electronic/Online Sources

There are many different digital or electronic sources you can cite in your essay and include in the Works Cited page.

For most electronic sources, you can use the following format, which is similar to any other source cited with the inclusion of the date of access and the DOI or other permalink.

Author. “Title.” Title of Website. Publication date. DOI/URL. Accessed on date.


Mendeley. “APA Format Citation Guide.” 2019, Accessed January 21, 2020.

The Purdue OWL Family of Sites. The Writing Lab and OWL at Purdue and Purdue U, 2008, Accessed 23 Apr. 2008.

Citing Interviews in the Works Cited Page

You do need to include an entry for any in-person or remote interview (such as by phone or email) in the Works Cited page, when using MLA format.

The Works Cited entry for interviews is as follows:

Dormund, Pauline. Personal interview. 13 Jan 2020.

Films in the Works Cited Page

In the Works Cited page, list the film by title.


The Matrix. Directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski (as the Wachowski Brothers), Warner Brothers, 1999.

MLA In-Text Citations (Parentheticals)

When you quote or paraphrase from a source in MLA format within the body of your essay or term paper, you must provide a proper citation.

The citation always includes the page number, whether or not you used a direct quote.

Because of the way it appears in the body of your text, the MLA in-text citation format is also called “author-page style.”

There are many different ways to format in-text citations using MLA format.

  • One Author

Yeleni found Shangri-La “full of wonder” but “bereft of soul,” (23).

Some poets describe Shangri-La as “full of wonder” (Yeleni 23).

  • Two Authors

Yeleni and Davis deride the way some scholars obfuscate the truth when discussing paleontology (213).

Some scholars obfuscate the truth when discussing paleontology, according to Yeleni and Davis (213).

 Some scholars obfuscate the truth when discussing paleontology (Yeleni and Davis 213).

  • More than Two Authors

Gardener, Chauncy, et al. “How to Grow Turnips All Year Round.” American Agriculture Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 7, pp. 112-115.

  • Multiple Works by the Same Author

When citing multiple works by the same author, distinguish them within the body of the text by their title. Use a short form of the title when the title is long.

If the title is a journal article, use quotation marks. If the title is a book, use italics.


Cumberbund claims that all is still quiet on the Western front (“A Lens to the Past” 49).

Partridge argues in favor of a “strict, unyielding policy,” in order to drive prices down (How to Lead 17).

How to Cite Sources in Chicago Style

The Chicago style frequently uses footnotes (or endnotes) in addition to a “Bibliography” page at the end of your essay or term paper. Unfortunately, the way the footnotes are formatted is completely different from the way the bibliography entries are formatted when using Chicago Style. When using Chicago style, allow quite a bit of time to prepare the footnotes in the proper formatting.

In Chicago style, it is acceptable to use parenthetical in-text citations instead of footnotes or endnotes; if you prefer to use in-text citations, consult with your instructor, reader, or editor.

Because it shares almost all elements in common with Kate L. Turabian's Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, the terms Chicago style and Turabian style are used interchangeably.

For the latest updates on formatting your papers in Chicago Style, please refer directly to the Chicago Manual of Style Online guide.

The references list in Chicago/Turabian style is called a Bibliography page.

It is easier to demonstrate how to cite sources in Chicago Style by showing how the footnote/endnote appears alongside its corresponding entry in the Bibliography.

  • Book by One Author

Bibliography Entry

Saline, Jack. A Small Book About Salt. New York: Penguin, 2008.


Even if you do not provide a direct quote, do include a page number in the footnote or endnote.

First Footnote/Endnote

For the first footnote or endnote, you write the long form version of the citation. For any additional footnotes or endnotes referring to the same source, use the abbreviated or shortened version.

Jack Saline, A Small Book About Salt. (New York: Penguin, 2008), 213.

Subsequent/Abbreviated Footnote/Endnote

Jack Saline, A Small Book About Salt, 214.

  • Book by Two or More Authors

Bibliography Entry

Saline, Jack and Timothy Johnson. A Big Book About Salt. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011.

First Footnote/Endnote

Jack Saline and Timothy Johnson. A Big Book About Salt. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 98.

Subsequent (Abbreviated) Footnotes/Endnotes

Saline and Johnson, A Big Book About Salt, 99.

  • Book Chapter

Sometimes you will need to cite a specific chapter in a book. This is especially true for when the book is a compilation of essays, in which each chapter has a different author. However, you could also cite only one book chapter if that is the only chapter you referred to in your essay. In this case, you use the following note and bibliography format.

Bibliography Entry

Marsdale, Henry Lane. “The Spirit of Financial Transactions.” In The Ethical Approach to Business, edited by John D’Angelo, 159-178. Minneapolis: Money Press, 2016.

First Footnote/Endnote

Henry Lane Marsdale, “The Spirit of Financial Transactions,” in The Ethical Approach to Business, ed. John D. Angelo (Minneapolis: Money Press, 2016), 161.

Subsequent/Abbreviated Footnote/Endnote

Henry Lane Marsdale, “The Spirit of Financial Transactions,” 165.

  • Journal Articles

Use the following format for the references to articles published in periodicals such as academic journals. The first number after the name of the journal is usually volume number.

Sometimes instead of a volume number, there will only be the edition or season of publication.


Sondheim, Tracey. “Live and Let Live” Modern Bioethics 12, no. 3 (April 2019): 165–76.

Sondheim, Tracey. “Live and Let Live” Modern Bioethics 12(Spring 2019): 165–76.

First Footnote/Endnote

Tracey Sondheim, “Live and Let Live,” Modern Bioethics 12, no. 3 (April 2019): 166.

Subsequent/Abbreviated Footnote/Endnote

Tracey Sondheim, “Live and Let Live,” 166.

  • Websites

Bibliography Entry

Salesforce. “About Us.” Last modified April 21, 2019.

First Footnote/Endnote

Salesforce, “About Us,” Last modified April 21, 2019,

Subsequent Footnote/Endnote

Salesforce, “About Us.”


In addition to the above three citation styles described in this article, there are several more in use. The style guide you need depends directly on where you go to school or what you are studying. Occasionally, you will be asked to choose the citation style that you prefer. In those cases, pick the one you feel most comfortable with and remain consistent throughout your essay.

When it comes time for you to insert your citations and the references page and you still need help, call on the services of a writing tutor who can help you edit your work and make sure it gets the grade you deserve. Once you master the different citation styles, you will find they are not that hard. It can be time consuming to pay attention to all the different details in punctuation and formatting, which is why many people still prefer to use a citation generator.

Remember also that there are many odd sources you may need to cite if you are writing essays, term papers, or dissertations in various fields of interest. If you have to cite a photograph printed in a newspaper, for instance, or an image you found online, you will need to delve a little deeper into the ways for formatting the citation according to the style guidelines. However, the vast majority of sources you cite will be books, journal articles, and websites.  This article provided you with the foundational understanding in APA, MLA, and Chicago style formatting for the most popular academic sources used in essays and term papers

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