Proper Source Use in Paragraphs

Function of Source Use
You use sources as a form of backup for what you write. They support your claims. This means that you own your paper.  Readers always need to be able to tell what’s yours from what’s theirs.

Consequences of the String of Pearls Effect
Using a single source several times in a row and then moving on as if some writing occurred is a common writing problem.  How great a percentage of an average body paragraph should come from the source? Answers vary, of course, depending on your purpose and the sophistication of your topic. However, if you consistently let the sources take over more than one-third of your body paragraphs, you will not be a successful arguer, thinker, or writer.

If you consistently string together a bunch of quotes, then readers are left with unused material. If you have two or three quotes in a row, that means you did not interpret them. For some reason, many writers think that the quotation marks are magic, as if the quotes speak–or mean something–for themselves. They don’t. If you think of the quotes as excuses for you to discuss their meaning, you will be much better off.

We call the stringing together of paraphrases or quotes “the string of pearls effect.” What is the effect on readers of such lists?

I usually tell students that readers need lots of prompts and reminders. Say things again, even if you think the quote did a good job of making meaning. Tell readers what something means–just don’t use “I” or “you” as you follow up on the quote. The ends of paragraphs are where things tend to fall apart, I think. Succeed in synthesizing your source, in using it and proving the meaning of source information.

With cited material, follow up by

  1. linking the paraphrase/quote to the paragraph’s topic sentence,
  2. linking the cited information to the thesis
  3. restating the relevance, credibility, or context of the source material
  4. setting up a transition to the upcoming paragraph(s)
  5. using a signal phrase like “In other words, . . .” and launching into a direct interpretation of the cited bit

Use your options. Take an active approach so papers–especially the research essay–actually use the sources actively.

A Typical Paragraph Pattern

(Remember, though, that this is not a formula. Vary your paragraphs, sentences, details, appeals, etc.)

Topic sentence. This is your own. Avoid starting w/quote (Why is this so?)
setup for source use (1-3 sentences)
source use (quote then cite, or paraphrase one sentence then cite)
direct interpretation of the quote’s words or the paraphrase’s meaning(s) (1-4 sentences, right?)
paragraph closing/transition/restated topic sentence/link to thesis
End the paragraph on your own with emphasis and power.

In large part, how well you do from here on out depends on how well you learn MLA citing and the standards of writing academic arguments. If we’re stuck with poorly-written paragraphs, the papers will only reach a certain level of quality.