Finding Sources


(In Bruges, living with water is a daily reality. Photo by John Vanveen, with permission)

Introduction

Research is an important part of writing an essay. The reader is not going to be satisfied with generalities, so we need specific and accurate information. However, we can’t be satisfied with just any book or article. We have to find sources that are reliable and trustworthy.

Finding Sources

For your essay you will need a minimum of three sources, of which at least one has to be a book and one a webpage.

To help you get started, here is a list of the kinds of books on natural disasters that you may find in your local library (click to open):


If you are doing your topic on a Canadian natural disaster, here are some possible resources for you (click to open):


Note that we haven’t provided full bibliographic information, or else you wouldn’t have anything to do!

Next, you will also need to find some reliable online sources. Don’t rely on Wikipedia for your topic. Watch out also for sources that are mostly pictures (such as this photo essay). Find a quality web page with detailed and scientific information.

Here are some further resources to help you do online research:

What is Research?

Plagiarism

Reading Sources Effectively

Tips for Doing Research With Google

Evaluating Online Sources

Research Activities


(Photo by John Vanveen, with permission)

Introduction

On this page you’ll find a variety of activities that will help you improve your research skills!

Activities

Finding Sources

For this assignment, you should find at least one book and one web page on your chosen natural disaster. Then you should cite them following the MLA guidelines. Use our handout (Finding Sources Assignment) to help with citation, and check our guide to MLA citation (especially the page on citing books). Your teacher may also provide you with a general lesson on citation first.

Evaluating Online Sources

Use our handout (Evaluating Online Sources) to determine the merits of one or more online sources! To understand the criteria used in evaluating web pages, see our lesson on evaluating online sources.

Annotated Bibliography

Before you take detailed notes, your teacher may want you to create an annotated bibliography. This is a list of some or all of your sources, with a short summary of what each one is about. Annotated bibliographies help you understand the overall layout and content of a source, so that you don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

For each source, start by providing a proper citation (using your teacher’s favourite style guide). Here’s an example:

Friedman, Lisa, and John Schwartz. “How Hurricane Harvey Became So Destructive.” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/28/climate/how-hurricane-harvey-became-so-destructive.html.

Next, you may want to list some key words (topics and subjects covered), though this is optional. Doing so can help you focus on what’s important:

Hurricane Harvey
Houston
Impact
Causes
Climate Change

Finally, you’ll have to provide a short summary. You can use some short quotations, but most of the summary should be in your own words:

Friedman and Schwartz argue that Hurricane Harvey was so catastrophic because a number of weather events happened at the same time. First, the water in the Gulf of Mexico was warmer than normal, leading to more evaporation and rain fall. Once the rain fell, there was little wind to steer the system away from the Houston area. Finally, the flood waters could not recede easily because “the storm surge elevated Galveston Bay, blocking drainage of the rain.” The authors suggest that although some of these factors could be blamed on climate change, the immediate causes are not fully understood, and that Houston will remain prone to flooding in the future.

Notice that the summary is not just a list of topics. It ties together all the ideas so that we get a clear picture of the main argument.

Use our handout (Annotated Bibliography) to start creating your own annotated bibliography.

Further Reading: Annotated Bibliographies.

Conducting an Interview

When you’re writing an essay about a natural disaster, it’s great if you can quote someone who has either experienced a disaster or knows a lot about it.

If you’re interviewing a stranger, you’ll have to contact them first. Not sure how to email a stranger? Here’s a template you can use:

Dear ________,

I am a grade _____ student at _________ school. My class is doing a project on natural disasters, and for one of our sources we get to interview someone. I am hoping you could help me out and answer a few questions about __________. I would love to learn more about your experiences.

If you’re willing to be interviewed, please let me know.

Sincerely,

___________

Once you fill in the blanks and add a few more details, your email will look something like this:

Dear Timothy Allen,

I am a grade 7 student at Mountain View High School. My class is doing a project on natural disasters, and for one of our sources we get to interview someone. I right away thought of you. I watched a documentary you were in. I am hoping you could help me out and answer a few questions about what it’s like to survive a wildfire. I would love to learn more about your experience.

If you’re willing to be interviewed, please let me know.

Sincerely,

Tabitha Jones.

You might be surprised. People are often very willing to share their stories.

More Interview Tips:

  • Plan a few questions beforehand
  • Avoid questions that can be answered with just a “yes” or a “no”
  • First record the interview and then write out the answers
  • Ask follow-up questions if you don’t understand something or would like more detail
  • Ask questions that address both the head (what you know) and the heart (how you feel)

Taking Notes

There are two main ways to take notes. You can either take comprehensive notes of everything you read, or you can be selective and just write down things you want to use for your essay. Either way, it’s good to take detailed notes. Doing so will help you master the material and will make it easier to write your own essay.

As you take notes, keep track of where the information came from. Write down the title or author, and note down page numbers (or web pages) for anything important. If you’re copying anything word for word, use quotation marks to avoid plagiarism.

Here’s an example from a set of notes that uses a mixture of quotations, listing, paraphrasing, and illustrations:

So here’s your assignment. Make a detailed set of notes for each of your sources, and hand it in to your teacher. Your notes don’t have to cover everything. Don’t take notes for information you’re not at all likely to use in your essay.

Here are some other things your teacher will be looking for:

  • Information about your source (author, title, etc.)
  • Some organization of the information (headings, topics, etc.)
  • Mixture of quotes and summary
  • Some sense of where in the source the information was found (e.g., page numbers)

Integrating Quotations

When you add quotations to your writing, it’s important to introduce them properly. Normally every quotation is introduced by a signal phrase (your words that signal a quotation is coming). That way the reader can easily make sense of what follows.

For this Integrating Quotations Assignment you will be practicing integrating your quotations properly. Use our Integrating Quotations page to help you understand the main types of signal phrases (scroll to the bottom of the  page if you want a printable version).

Paraphrasing

Skillful writers are able to put other people’s ideas in their own words without slavishly copying or plagiarizing. Print out our Paraphrasing Assignment and practice rewording some passages about natural disasters.

For more information about paraphrasing, check out the rules here.

Paragraph Writing


(“Wrecked,” by John Vanveen, with permission)

Introduction

A paragraph is the expression of a single idea. All the information in a paragraph should connect to that central idea. When a paragraph is unified it is said to be coherent. When it’s not, it’s choppy or incoherent.

As you work on your final essay it may be easiest to start not with your intro and conclusion, but with some of your main body paragraphs. It’s easier to make some specific points than to know exactly how you will tie everything together. Even if you have an outline prepared (as you should!), starting in the middle will help you to focus on the particulars before you worry about the final argument. In fact, as you work on your paragraphs, your thesis will slowly lose its fuzzy outline and come into focus.

On this page you will find some general instruction in paragraph writing, as well as some activities for developing your own writing skill set.

Paragraph Structure

Most paragraphs start with what’s called a topic sentence. Your first sentence introduces the main point of the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph consists of facts, quotations, and other forms of proof. Some paragraphs end with a brief conclusion, whereas others assume that the reader will have understood what the paragraph was about.

Here is a sample paragraph from a critical source:

It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the Western Hemisphere. On May 31, 1970, at 3:23 in the afternoon, a massive earthquake struck Peru. With a magnitude of 7.8, it was felt throughout the country–but it was in the department of Ancash, along the coast in central Peru, that the quake was most catastrophic. Entire cities, towns, and villages were destroyed, and some 76,000 people died. Another 140,000 were injured, and as many as 800,000 were left without homes. It has been estimated that 160,000 buildings were ruined. The cataclysm destroyed roads, railroads, bridges, businesses, schools, and government facilities. Water, sewerage, telephone, and electrical systems were put out of operation. All this because of an earthquake that lasted less than a minute. (194)

Source: de Boer, Jelle Zeilinga, and Donald Theodore Sanders. Earthquakes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.

Notice how the first and last sentence are more general, and how everything in the paragraph backs up the central idea, namely that this was a devastating earthquake.

Let’s look at another example. The following paragraph uses quotations to strengthen its claims. In this case, the author’s main point is that firefighters in British Columbia face a unique challenge. Not every forest is the same, and some forests need regular forest fires for revitalization. When this does not occur (because of successful fire fighting), then those fires that do break out are unusually destructive:

In the Interior’s forests of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine, fire is a natural cleansing force that sweeps away undergrowth, renews grasses, releases seeds and generally revitalizes the forest. The cycle is so regular that fires are seldom severe enough to burn the trees themselves. But as John Betts, a forester with the Western Silvercultural Contractors Association, explains, decades of successfully fighting forest fires has created an unnatural forest, one thick with undergrowth and carpeted with generations of dead pine needles. The result is kindling, and when a fire does take hold, it does so with an unnatural ferocity, consuming trees it might otherwise have left unscathed and destroying healthy bacteria in the soils of the forest floor that nourish life. “The forest systems are out of whack due to our well-intentioned conservation practices, which dictate not letting the forests go up in smoke,” says Betts. “The true root of the problem is the long-term denial of fire’s rightful place in the forest.” (17)

Source: Anderson, Charles, and Lori Culbert. Wildfire: British Columbia Burns. Edited by Shelley Fralic, Greystone Books, 2004.

This paragraph has a rather complex argument, and it takes the author a few sentences to connect the dots.

As you read your sources, you will find that popular books and articles are quite relaxed about paragraph structure. Often there’s no clear topic sentence and the argument simply carries on from the previous paragraph.

In your own essay you will want to be a bit more formal. Begin by stating your main idea and by connecting it (if necessary) to what came before.

For more information, please visit our separate pages on paragraph writing and paragraph transitions.

Activities

Paragraph Writing

Print out our Paragraph Writing Assignment to practice creating a paragraph from scratch.

Transitional Expressions

When we write, we usually know in our own mind how our sentences relate to each other. Yet to a stranger the connections between them may not be immediately obvious. So, to get better at connecting your sentences, try our Transitional Expressions Assignment.

For more information, check out also the lessons on conjunctive adverbs and connecting sentences.