Finding Evidence

Learning Objectives

  • Describe strategies for preliminary research on a topic

A critical step in the writing process is to find evidence that supports and explains the claim you make in your thesis statement. Often, this means doing research and finding information, facts, stories, data, and reports related to your topic, but sometimes, especially in narrative writing, it means adding support through your own experiences and examples.

Support and Elaboration

Support and elaboration consist of the specific details and information writers use to develop their topic. The key to developing support and elaboration is getting specific. Good writers use concrete, specific details, and relevant information to establish mental images for their readers.

Sufficiency and Relatedness

Two important concepts in support and elaboration are sufficiency and relatedness.

Sufficiency refers the amount of detail — is there enough detail to support the topic? Any parent who has asked his or her child what happened at school knows how hard it is to get a child to elaborate on a subject. Good writers supply their readers with sufficient details to comprehend what they have written. In narrative writing, this means providing enough descriptive details for the reader to construct a picture of the story in their mind. In expository writing, this means not only finding enough information to support your purpose, whether it is to inform or persuade your audience, but also finding information that is credible and accurate.

Sufficiency, however, is not enough. The power of your information is determined less by the quantity of details than by their quality. Look for evidence that is accurate and comes from credible sources.

Relatedness refers to the quality of the details and their relevance to the topic. Good writers select only the details that will support their focus, deleting irrelevant information. In narrative writing, details should be included only if they are concrete, specific details that contribute to, rather than detract from, the picture provided by the narrative. In expository writing, information should be included only if it is relevant to the writer’s goal and strengthens rather than weakens the writer’s ability to meet that goal.

Guiding Questions for Support and Elaboration

FOR NARRATIVE WRITING:

  • Is your story developed with specific details that are related to the main event?
  • Do all of the details move the story along?
  • Does your story have enough elaboration so that your reader can see and feel what is happening? Can you show me an example where your reader can see or feel what is happening?

FOR INFORMATIONAL WRITING:

  • Is your essay developed with specific information (facts, statistics, etc.) that is related to the main topic?
  • Does all of the information support the main topic?
  • Does your essay have enough information to fulfill your reader’s needs?

FOR ARGUMENTATIVE WRITING:

  • Is your essay developed with specific details that are related to the main topic?
  • Does all of the information support the main argument?
  • Does your essay have enough supporting evidence to persuade your reader?

Finding Evidence

Your research strategy for finding supporting evidence should be based on the research requirements your professor provides. Some formal research essays should include peer-reviewed journal articles only; however, there are some research papers that may allow you to use a wider variety of sources, including sources from the World Wide Web.

Primary and Secondary Sources

Some assignments require you to find primary sources only, while others allow you to rely on secondary sources. Primary sources are original sources and documents that were created at the time of study or that were created by someone experiencing an event first-hand. For example, a historical primary source would be a document, manuscript, recording, autobiography, photograph, or letter directly from the time period; if you were studying the Civil War, then a letter from Abraham Lincoln or a journal entry from a soldier would both be primary sources. More current primary sources include descriptions of events by those who experienced it in person—for example, an essay written by someone at the World Trade Center during 9/11. In the sciences, results of research studies and experiments are also primary sources.

Secondary sources are secondhand accounts of primay sources and involve generalization, analysis, interpretation, or evaluation of the original information. For example, a secondary source about the Civil War would be a biography on Abraham Lincoln or a scholarly journal from someone analyzing battle plans. A news article about a scientific breakthrough would also be a secondary source.

Popular and Scholarly Sources

An iphone with the news source "Zeit" on the screen.

Figure 1. Online news sources, like the one pictured above, are called a “popular sources”.

A popular source is meant for a general audience. Popular sources include newspaper and magazine articles, your Yahoo or Google newsfeed, and blogs. A scholarly source would be one that has been written by a professional in the field; the author may hold a doctoral degree or have a great amount of expertise in the field you are studying. Oftentimes, an author’s credentials will be listed as a footnote within the source, but if not, an Internet search may reveal whether the writer can be determined to be a scholarly author or one that has done a vast amount of research on the topic.

The author of the source will always be an important consideration, as your view of the quality of the article may change depending upon the author’s credibility. In addition, you must ask yourself whether your source is popular or scholarly, and be sure to meet any requirements the project demands regarding source types.

In many fields, there will be a number of academic journals, periodicals and organizations that publish scholarly articles related to the subject. By discovering and accessing these journals, you can be sure that the piece from which you are quoting is a scholarly source. Many colleges and universities pay fees in order to provide their students with access to these journals in their electronic form, and an even greater number of university libraries will shelve current and back issues of these journals.

Furthermore, conducting an Internet search of these journals and articles may prove fruitful. Search engines such as Google offer the option of searching “Google Scholar” in order to access only these scholarly articles. Finding these sources online, depending on the journal and the site, may require that you pay a fee to view the article. This is where university libraries come in handy, as they offer free access to the same materials. If you cannot access a university library, some clever hunting of the Internet may still yield what you are looking for at no cost.

If your professor has not established research requirements for your assignment, it’s a good idea to ask. You can start with a general search using Google or Wikipedia to understand the basics about your topic, but you’ll want to do specific research to find the type of evidence needed to give credibility to your argument. This will probably include using both print and electronic sources, in the form of books, scholarly journals, magazines, newspapers, and websites.

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