The Student Guide to Referencing

What do you think of when I say the word referencing?

                                                                                                                            “That word just sends chills down my spine”    

                                                                                                             “I love it”

                                                                                                                                    “I’m fine with it”

                                                                                           “I don’t even know what that is

Perhaps unfortunately, I have yet to meet anyone who loves referencing, so I cannot promise you that this guide will make you cherish the process. Rather, hopefully by the time you finish reading this article, you will at least be able to answer the question “What do you think of when I say the word referencing?” with the third answer, the stage where you are comfortable with referencing in your assignments.

For those of you who stared at the screen with a blank face when I mentioned referencing though, don’t worry! We were all there. Many schools do not teach their students about how to reference, and lacking the excitement and action of other activities, it is not really the kind of thing you put on your list of “things I want to learn in my life”, nor is it a great topic for conversations. You may find that you don’t even think about it until the last few hours before your assignment is due (although hopefully you do!).

Certainly, it looks very complicated, and very daunting (but- happy news!- it is not when you understand how it works)

To put it simply, referencing is the process of citing the works you used in your assignment (whether it be quotes or ideas), to give credit to the author/s [of that work] and avoid plagiarism. It is particularly important not only because you often must reference in your essays, but also because authors and artists put a lot of time and effort in their work, and deserve to be given credit for it. Also, it is helpful because you don’t really want to be in that situation where you are staring at your notes, thinking “where on earth did I get that from?”, but, more optimistically, it is useful at times where you have read a great article or book and, having really enjoyed it, want to learn more about the topic they were writing about, in which case you simply turn to the bibliography for the sources that author used in constructing their work.

The best part about referencing is that it is never too late to learn. Actually, it might be pushing it a little if you are trying to learn it now, at 3am, only hours before your essay is due, but hopefully most of you have a little bit of time to learn, practice and- super importantly!- re-read your work. I learned to reference embarrassingly late, and yet, practice has taught me that it becomes much easier. Not quite second nature, but at least something you are confident with.

Whatever referencing system you use is up to your personal preference, but I personally prefer the Harvard system because you do not have to have footnotes, which is wonderful as it means you have less word count! If you want to learn this system, Staffordshire University has a super-simple guide with examples, which you can find at:

So you have a referencing guide in hand, your manual on how to reference…


Because we have some tips on referencing for you which might come in handy for creating a successful bibliography…


Consistency is a big word in referencing. It means choosing one system of referencing and sticking to it. Doing this well will make your essays look and sound more professional and consise. It is actually very difficult to not be consistent, because it takes more time and effort to be altering between different systems of referencing than keeping to one system, so this criteria is easy to fulfil.


Ensure your bibliography is complete. It sounds silly, but you might find that you thought you finished it, despite the fact that you did not, or that you were meant to write in certain books but forgot. On one occasion, when I viewed one of the essays I was to submit online, my bibliography was missing some books due to an error with my laptop. Thankfully, because the error was only on my laptop, when I submitted it online and printed it, the ‘missing’ books were there. An unfinished bibliography is not a good thing- you will not get marks for just effort!


This is something easy to get wrong. You copy out from a book, not making any indication that it was a quote, and then a few months later write what you think is your own notes into your essay and get marked down for plagiarism. I find that the easiest ways to avoid this are to highlight or colour quotes, and/or to create a special folder or section in a notebook that you put all your quotes into, so you have them in one place, making it easier to access them. Don’t forget to write the information about the book and quote (page number, author’s name and book title) so you know where you got it from!


I can’t stress enough how important it is to proof-read your work. You never know when you might have misspelt something or mixed up authors with book titles. It might sound ridiculous now, but if you are the kind of person to stay up late writing, there is a very good chance you might have made some small mistakes. The last thing that you want is to spell out the author’s name incorrectly when the correct way it is written was right in front of you! The “Uggghhh nooooo!!!” feeling you get when you check your work after you submit your essay is one to avoid (take that from experience!)


If you are giving the page numbers you used in your citations, you want to make sure that you get your page numbers and quotes right. This is because a scary but very real thing in life that happens is that the examiners might decide to test out your bibliography, by using your page numbers to find the quotes from the books you are mentioning. Books are often revised in different editions, so it is best to make sure you are citing the right edition!


The bibliography explained:


The word ‘important’ has come up too many times in this guide to count, but referencing really is an essential part of successful essay writing. The good part is that like riding a bike, once you learn it, you don’t forget. Don’t stress yourself with memorising it though- just have a guide to hand- the memorising will come naturally. It might not become second nature, but, with practice, it will at least something you are confident with.


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