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Using Sources Well

In a research project, the assignment often states how many sources to use. The number of sources, though, is not the only concern of the writer. A writer should try to use the sources well by selecting the best sources, choosing helpful quotations or paraphrases, and placing them in the essay appropriately.

Credible Sources

The first step to using sources well is to choose them carefully. Use the most credible sources you can find. Click here for ideas about evaluating sources.

Present Your Information Fairly

Another central goal when using sources in your essay is to present the information as the author intended it. You must avoid taking information out of context or modifying a source to better fit what you want it to say. For example, if a source presents one argument in favor of an idea but is overall against the idea, you cannot present only the favorable idea and imply that the author was overall in favor. The way you use a source's ideas must conform to the author's intention.

How Much Source Information to Use

Overall, your essay should feel like it is composed of your argument in your voice. There should not be so much source information that it begins to feel like quotes and paraphrases from others that have been strung together. Your goal should be that most of the content is yours--your ideas, your paraphrases of an author’s ideas, your analysis, your conclusions. Aim to not let source information overwhelm your own writing.

There is no strict rule about how much source information an essay should use, although your assignment likely specifies a number of sources. All assignments are different, but in any writing situation, the writer should be careful about using too much source information. One way to ensure that your essay is not overwhelmed by sources is to limit the number of long quotations (or "block" quotations) you use. Another key idea is to avoid relying too much on one source throughout the essay. Depending a great deal on one source makes your essay seem like it is parroting the ideas of another author rather than presenting an original argument. In all, choose your source information wisely, space it out in the essay, and emphasize your own thoughts.

Where to Use Source Information

When thinking about where to integrate your sources, aim to work your information into your own writing smoothly. The whole essay should read like one piece of work with one coherent argument. The source information should not interrupt the progression of ideas or the flow of the language.

As you are crafting a paragraph, think about using quotations to demonstrate a point you are making. Your paragraph has a main idea to prove. You will present this main idea in your own words in the topic sentence and refer back to it in the conclusion sentence, so avoid using source information in either of those places. Use your own language to structure the paragraph.  Next, introduce the first detail and defend it with whatever kind of support is appropriate. You may then use a quotation or paraphrase from a source to add support and develop the idea more. If you use a paraphrase, your expression of the idea should be clear, but sometimes a direct quotation from a source needs further analysis to be clear to the reader. This pattern of presenting a detail and developing it may be repeated several times in a paragraph before the conclusion sentence. Thus, a very basic pattern for a paragraph with source may look like this:

Topic sentence

Introduction of detail

Development of detail (with statistics, primary source quotations, description, etc)

Introduction of a quotation or paraphrase from a secondary source

Explanation of the source material

Conclusion sentence

All of the items in the list should be unified in supporting the idea in the topic sentence. You could modify this pattern any number of ways. Ultimately, though, your goal is to maintain control of the paragraph while using sources to further bolster your ideas.

Use a Balance of Quotations and Paraphrases

Whether to choose a quotation or a paraphrase sometimes depends on the assignment. For example, in literary analysis, a writer will often rely more on quotations from the primary text because the exact wording is important to the interpretation of the work.

Paraphrasing when you are using secondary sources can help to ensure your voice is dominant in your essay. Paraphrasing is especially appropriate when the idea presented in the source is useful, but the wording is not striking. When you paraphrase the source, you have the opportunity to make the idea understandable to the reader and ensure that it integrates smoothly into the paragraph.

Choose to use quotations with discretion. Quote when the language is particularly vivid, clear, or useful in some other way that you could not replicate in a paraphrase. It is also acceptable to quote when you cannot fully express the ideas in your own words, and thus a paraphrase would be extremely difficult.

Integrating Your Sources Smoothly

The first time you refer to a source, include any relevant information about it that you would like to highlight. This may include the author's full name, his or her qualifications, the title of the article or periodical, and its date of publication. Avoid including too much of this information--choose the details carefully. At the least, use the author's full name the first time you mention him or her in a sentence. A sentence introducing a source for the first time might look like these examples:

In her landmark 1982 book, In a Different Voice, social psychologist Carol Gilligan argues that traditional theories of moral development were biased because former studies used only male subjects (18).

Writing in the journal Booktalk, children's author Aidan Chambers explains, "Children, of course, have not completely learned to ... shift the gears of their personality according to the invitations offered by the book. In this respect they are unyielding readers" (93).

If you have already given the author's full name earlier in the essay, you may refer to him or her by a last name only. For example:

Gilligan continues, "In Piaget's account (1932) of the moral judgment of the child, girls are an aside, a curiosity to whom he devotes four brief entries in an index that omits 'boys' altogether because 'the child' is assumed to be male..." (18).