Principle 1: Listen to your sources
Excerpt from student essay
These insights from cognitive science enable us to critically assess the claims made on both sides of the education reform debate. On one hand, they cast doubt on the claims of education reformers that measuring teachers’ performance by student test scores is the best way to improve education.…
At the same time, opponents of education reform should acknowledge that these research findings should prompt us to take a fresh look at how we educate our children. While Stan Karp of Rethinking Schools is correct when he argues that “data-driven formulas [based on standardized testing] lack both statistical credibility and a basic understanding of the human motivations and relationships that make good schooling possible”, it doesn’t necessarily follow that all education reform proposals lack merit. Challenging standards, together with specific training in emotional self-regulation, will likely enable more students to succeed.
Have you ever had the maddening experience of arguing with someone who twisted your words to make it seem like you were saying something you weren’t? Novice writers sometimes inadvertently misrepresent their sources when they quote very minor points from an article or even positions that the authors of an article disagree with. It often happens when students approach their sources with the goal of finding snippets that align with their own opinion. For example, the passage above contains the phrase “measuring teachers’ performance by student test scores is the best way to improve education.” An inexperienced writer might include that quote in a paper without making it clear that the author(s) of the source actually dispute that very claim. Doing so is not intentionally fraudulent, but it reveals that the paper-writer isn’t really thinking about and responding to claims and arguments made by others. In that way, it harms his or her credibility.
Academic journal articles are especially likely to be misrepresented by student writers because their literature review sections often summarize a number of contrasting viewpoints. For example, sociologists Jennifer C. Lee and Jeremy Staff wrote a paper in which they note that high-schoolers who spend more hours at a job are more likely to drop out of school. However, Lee and Staff ’s analysis finds that working more hours doesn’t actually make a student more likely to drop out. Instead, the students who express less interest in school are both more likely to work a lot of hours and more likely to drop out. In short, Lee and Staff argue that disaffection with school causes students to drop-out, not working at a job. In reviewing prior research about the impact of work on dropping out, Lee and Staff write “Paid work, especially when it is considered intensive, reduces grade point averages, time spent on homework, educational aspirations, and the likelihood of completing high school.” If you included that quote without explaining how it fits into Lee and Staff ’s actual argument, you would be misrepresenting that source.
Principle 2: Provide context
Another error beginners often make is to drop in a quote without any context. If you simply quote, “Students begin preschool with a set of self-regulation skills that are a product of their genetic inheritance and their family environment” (Willingham, 2011, p.24), your reader is left wondering who Willingham is, why he or she is included here, and where this statement fits into his or her larger work. The whole point of incorporating sources is to situate your own insights in the conversation. As part of that, you should provide some kind of context the first time you use that source. Some examples:
Willingham, a cognitive scientist, claims that …
Research in cognitive science has found that … (Willingham, 2011).
Willingham argues that “Students begin preschool with a set of self-regulation skills that are a product of their genetic inheritance and their family environment” (Willingham, 2011, p.24). Drawing on findings in cognitive science, he explains “…”
As the second example above shows, providing a context doesn’t mean writing a brief biography of every author in your bibliography—it just means including some signal about why that source is included in your text.
Even more baffling to your reader is when quoted material does not fit into the flow of the text. For example, a novice student might write,
Schools and parents shouldn’t set limits on how much teenagers are allowed to work at jobs. “We conclude that intensive work does not affect the likelihood of high school dropout among youths who have a high propensity to spend long hours on the job” (Lee and Staff, 2007, p. 171). Teens should be trusted to learn how to manage their time.
The reader is thinking, who is this sudden, ghostly “we”? Why should this source be believed? If you find that passages with quotes in your draft are awkward to read out loud, that’s a sign that you need to contextualize the quote more effectively. Here’s a version that puts the quote in context:
Schools and parents shouldn’t set limits on how much teenagers are allowed to work at jobs. Lee and Staff ’s carefully designed study found that “intensive work does not affect the likelihood of high school dropout among youths who have a high propensity to spend long hours on the job” (2007, p. 171). Teens should be trusted to learn how to manage their time.
In this latter example, it’s now clear that Lee and Staff are scholars and that their empirical study is being used as evidence for this argumentative point. Using a source in this way invites readers to check out Lee and Staff ’s work for themselves if they doubt this claim.
Many writing instructors encourage their students to contextualize their use of sources by making a “quotation sandwich”; that is, introduce the quote in some way and then follow it up with your own words. If you’ve made a bad habit of dropping in unintroduced quotes, the quotation sandwich idea may help you improve your skills, but in general you don’t need to approach every quote or paraphrase as a three-part structure to have well integrated sources. You should, however, avoid ending a paragraph with a quotation. If you’re struggling to figure out what to write after a quote or close paraphrase, it may be that you haven’t yet figured out what role the quote is playing in your own analysis. If that happens to you a lot, try writing the whole first draft in your own words and then incorporate material from sources as you revise.
Principle 3: Use sources efficiently
Some student writers are in a rut of only quoting whole sentences. Some others get overly enamored of extended block quotes and the scholarly look they give to the page. These aren’t the worst sins of academic writing, but they get in the way of one of the key principles of writing with sources: shaping quotes and paraphrases efficiently. Efficiency follows from the second principle, because when you fully incorporate sources into your own explicit argument, you zero in on the phrases, passages, and ideas that are relevant to your points. It’s a very good sign for your paper when most quotes are short (key terms, phrases, or parts of sentences) and the longer quotes (whole sentences and passages) are clearly justified by the discussion in which they’re embedded. Every bit of every quote should feel indispensable to the paper. An overabundance of long quotes usually means that your own argument is undeveloped. The most incandescent quotes will not hide that fact from your professor.
Also, some student writers forget that quoting is not the only way to incorporate sources. Paraphrasing and summarizing are sophisticated skills that are often more appropriate to use than direct quoting. The first two paragraphs of the example passage above do not include any quotations, even though they are both clearly focused on presenting the work of others. Student writers may avoid paraphrasing out of fear of plagiarizing, and it’s true that a poorly executed paraphrase will make it seem like the student writer is fraudulently claiming the wordsmithing work of others as his or her own. Sticking to direct quotes seems safer. However, it is worth your time to master paraphrasing because it often helps you be more clear and concise, drawing out only those elements that are relevant to the thread of your analysis.
For example, here’s a passage from a hypothetical paper with a block quote that is fully relevant to the argument but, nevertheless, inefficient:
Drawing on a lifetime of research, Kahneman concludes our brains are prone to error:
System 1 registers the cognitive ease with which it processes information, but it does not generate a warning signal when it becomes unreliable. Intuitive answers come to mind quickly and confidently, whether they originate from skills or from heuristics. There is no simple way for System 2 to distinguish between a skilled and a heuristic response. Its only recourse is to slow down and attempt to construct an answer on its own, which it is reluctant to do because it is indolent. Many suggestions of System 1 are casually endorsed with minimal checking, as in the bat-and-ball problem.
While people can get better at recognizing and avoiding these errors, Kahneman suggests, the more robust solutions involve developing procedures within organizations to promote careful, effortful thinking in making important decisions and judgments.
Even a passage that is important to reference and is well contextualized in the flow of the paper will be inefficient if it introduces terms and ideas that aren’t central to the analysis within the paper. Imagine, for example, that other parts of this hypothetical paper use Kahneman’s other terms for System 1 (fast thinking) and System 2 (slow thinking); the sudden encounter of “System 1” and “System 2” would be confusing and tedious for your reader. Similarly, the terms “heuristics” and “bat-and-ball problem” might be unfamiliar to your reader. Their presence in the block quote just muddies the waters. In this case, a paraphrase is a much better choice. Here’s an example passage that uses a paraphrase to establish the same points more clearly and efficiently:
Drawing on a lifetime of research, Kahneman summarizes that our brains are prone to error because they necessarily rely on cognitive shortcuts that may or may not yield valid judgments.9 We have the capacity to stop and examine our assumptions, Kahneman points out, but we often want to avoid that hard work. As a result, we tend to accept our quick, intuitive responses. While people can get better at recognizing and avoiding these errors, Kahneman suggests that the more robust solutions involve developing procedures within organizations to promote careful, effortful thinking in making important decisions and judgments.
Not only is the paraphrased version shorter (97 words versus 151), it is clearer and more efficient because it highlights the key ideas, avoiding specific terms and examples that aren’t used in the rest of the paper.
Whether you choose a long quote, short quote, paraphrase or summary depends on the role that the source in playing in your analysis. The trick is to make deliberate, thoughtful decisions about how to incorporate ideas and words from others.
Paraphrasing, summarizing, and the mechanical conventions of quoting take a lot of practice to master. If you suspect that you’re in a quoting rut, try out some new ways of incorporating sources.
Principle 4: Choose precise verbs of attribution
It’s time to get beyond the all-purpose “says.” And please don’t look up “says” in the thesaurus and substitute verbs like “proclaim” (unless there was actually a proclamation) or “pronounce” (unless there was actually a pronouncement). Here are 15 useful alternatives:
|reasons||proposes||suggests (if the author is speculating or hypothesizing)||contests (disagrees)||concludes|
More precise choices like these carry a lot more information than “says”, enabling you to relate more with fewer words. For one thing, they can quickly convey what kind of idea you’re citing: a speculative one (“postulates”)? A conclusive one (“determines”)? A controversial one (“counters”)? You can further show how you’re incorporating these sources into your own narrative. For example, if you write that an author “claims” something, you’re presenting yourself as fairly neutral about that claim. If you instead write that the author “shows” something, then you signal to your reader that you find that evidence more convincing. “Suggests” on the other hand is a much weaker endorsement.
Like so many things in adult life, writing in college is often both more liberating and burdensome than writing in high school and before. On the one hand, students might have felt in their high-school experiences that their own opinions didn’t matter in academic writing, and that they can’t make any claims that aren’t exactly paralleled by a pedigreed quotation. Writing papers based on their own insights and opinions can seem freeing in contrast.
At the same time, a college student attending full time may be expected to have original and well-considered ideas about pre-Columbian Latin American history, congressional redistricting, sports in society, post-colonial literatures, and nano-technology, all in about two weeks. Under these conditions, it’s easy to see why some would long for the days when simple, competent reporting did the job.
You probably won’t have an authentic intellectual engagement with every college writing assignment, but approaching your written work as an opportunity to dialogue with the material can help you find the momentum you need to succeed with this work.
- Karp, Stan. “Taking Teacher Quality Seriously: A Collaborative Approach to Teacher Evaluation.” Rethinking Schools, 2012, http://www.rethinkingschools.org/articles/taking-teacher-quality-seriously-a-collaborative-approach-to-teacher-evaluation ↵
- Lee, J.C. and Jeremy Staff, “When Work Matters: The Varying Impact of Work Intensity on High School Drop Out,” Sociology of Education 80, no. 2 (2007): 158-178. ↵
- Ibid., 159. ↵
- Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 416-7. ↵