When do I have to document sources?

Answer: whenever you use information that does not fall under the categories of personal experience or common knowledge, you need to document your source. Students often grow confused, though, when they use extensive citations in a paper and then are told by their professor that they cited "too much." While different professors may be more or less insistent on citation, the problem is usually that a student has filled his or her paper with quotations from other sources and little else. The general rule is: for every line you quote or every fact you cite you should have at least two lines of your own analysis and interpretation of the information.

Personal experience is a category of information based on events in your own life, things that you have seen, heard, or felt. For example, if you were writing a paper on adolescent reading habits you could recount how you and your friends were addicted to Stephen King's novels in junior high. However, personal experience is authoritative only when supported (or at least not contradicted) by other sources: perhaps your reading habits were typical only of males, in which case you would have to be careful not to imply that all adolescents read King if doing so excludes girls. In a few years you may find out that your experience only reflects that of teens in the 1980s and 90s, narrowing the application of your experience to a single generation. In an extreme case, you might find out that you and your friends were just weird, and the other 98% of teens were addicted to John Grisham (or Anne McCaffrey or the back of cereal boxes). Your personal experience can only be generalized if you find evidence that others share it.


The purpose of using personal experience in an essay isn't always to generalize it to support a broad argument. Sometimes, you can puncture a theory or support your thesis by showing how your own experience contradicts that of the majority.

Natalie Grinnell
Wofford College
429 North Church Street
Spartanburg, South Carolina 29303
Last Update: July 17, 2009