Using Sources Overview

One of the challenges of writing an essay using sources is successfully integrating your ideas with the material from your sources. Your essay must explain what you think, or it will read like a disconnected string of facts and quotations. However, you also need to support your ideas with research or they will seem insubstantial. How do you strike the balance?

Balancing your own ideas with sources’ ideas involves synthesizing the information from those sources so that you can blend multiple source ideas into your own idea structure that supports your thesis.  The following video offers information about the concept of synthesis, or blending ideas from others’ with your own in research writing. Although the video talks about writing a “literature review,” which is a particular form of academic writing, the concepts hold true for any type of research essay.

One main method of synthesizing source information with your own ideas is to offer your own comments and insights about others’ ideas that you have included from your research. Once you have analyzed the texts involved in your research and taken notes, you must turn to the task of writing your essay. The goal is here is not simply to summarize your findings. Critical writing requires that you communicate your analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of those findings to your audience.

Integrating materials from sources into your own text can be tricky; if you consider the metaphor that writing a paper and including sources is a way of facilitating a conversation about a topic, it helps to think about how this will best work.

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When you’re discussing a topic in person with one or more people, you will find yourself referencing outside sources: “When I was watching the news, I heard them say that . . . I read in the newspaper that . . . John told me that . . .” These kinds of phrases show instances of using a source in conversation, and ways that we automatically shape our sentences to work references to the sources into the flow of conversation.

Think about this next time you try to work a source into a piece of writing: if you were speaking this aloud in conversation, how would you introduce the material to your listeners? What information would you give them in order to help them understand who the author is, and why her view is worth referencing? After giving the information, how would you then link it back to the point you were trying to make? Just as you would do this in a conversation if you found it necessary to reference a newspaper article or television show you saw, you also need to do this in your essays.

As you can see, using sources involves much more than just including a series of quotations in your essay. To avoid falling into the trap of having strings of quotations and very little else in a research essay, follow a few simple pointers:

  • Avoid using strings of long quotations. The overuse of long quotations gives the reader the impression you cannot think for yourself.
  • Use summaries and paraphrases in addition to direct quotations. To the reader, the effective use of summaries and paraphrases indicates that you took the time to think about the meaning behind the quote’s words.
  • Make sure to comment on any information you quote, summarize, and paraphrase. Remember that your researched information is there to support to your own ideas and logical argument in your research essay, and that incorporating research is like creating a conversation.
  • Finally, make sure to identify all of your quoted, summarized, and paraphrased information with citations, so your reader can easily differentiate your sources’ from your own information and ideas.