Imagine that you arrive at a party, and everyone in the room is discussing the same topic. Some people are passionate and animated, some try to sound rational or conciliatory, and others appear to be mumbling to themselves. As it turns out, you also have an opinion on the subject. You might even have the urge to yell at everyone to be quiet so that you can address the entire room. However, deep down you know that wouldn’t do. It would be more polite to first get to know the crowd. You might introduce yourself and hear what others have to say. You might ask questions when you don’t understand something. Only then will you be you in a position to state your own opinion. And, when you do, you can have a real conversation in which everyone’s voice is heard.
In academic writing that conversation is called research. Research is the attempt to understand the viewpoints of others. In the process, your own ideas and opinions will evolve, and may even change entirely. When you then turn to writing an academic essay or book, you are able to express your conclusions in a way that is interactive, constructive, and respectful. And, if you do all these things, you will be the star of the party.
Primary and Secondary Sources
Scholars often split their sources into two kinds: primary and secondary sources. Here’s how to tell the difference.
A primary source is either the main focus of your discussion (e.g., a novel you’re analyzing), or it’s a source that provides first hand information about a particular topic or event (e.g., a newspaper from the time period you’re studying).
Primary sources are valued for their immediacy. For instance, when you do historical research you’ll want to hear from eye witnesses who were close to the action. Here are some common types of primary sources:
- diaries and autobiographies
- original books and articles
- government documents
- legal records
- scientific experiments
- artifacts (clothing, historical objects, etc.)
- buildings and architecture
Secondary sources are a kind of commentary on primary sources. For example, if I write an analysis of a Shakespeare play I’m producing a secondary source. Here are some more examples:
- book reviews
- academic books or articles
These lists are not exhaustive, and there is often considerable overlap between primary and secondary sources. For instance, how would you characterize an older work of criticism (say a medieval commentary on Aristotle)? Obviously, the lines get blurred a little, but the main point is that good research is about finding the best sources–which often means looking for primary sources that get us as close to the action as possible.
As you incorporate your research in your writing, you’ll need to decide on the purpose of each source. Here are some of the most common ways to use a source:
Proof. By citing or quoting from a source you can demonstrate that you have sufficient evidence for your argument.
Agreement. You can explain what parts of the source meet your approval.
Background. Perhaps you just want to add some flavour or context to your writing. You can do this by providing background information.
Clarification. Sometimes a source says it better than you can. Alternatively, sometimes your source provides additional perspective and broadens the point you’re making.
Advancement. It can happen that you agree with your source, but you want to share how the insight gained might be applied in a new context or in a different way.
Disagreement. When you find sources you disagree with, you can point out their inaccuracies and shortcomings.
Once you’ve decided how you want to use your source, the next step is to interact with the source in your writing. This is where you have to decide how important the source is to your argument. If your source illustrates a minor point, you might be content with a quick mention or a paraphrase. You might even relegate the source to a footnote. If you source is absolutely central to your argument (say your entire essay is a reply to one person’s opinion), you’ll need to introduce it early and spend some time explaining why your audience should care.
Either way, it’s important to remember that your essay belongs to you, and not to your sources. That’s why we generally discourage people from using quotations in their thesis or in topic sentences. First clarify your own argument and then relate it to the viewpoints of others. Even if an entire paragraph is dedicated to a single source, we still want to know your opinion about it.
When you use a source, there are typically three things you need to do. First, you’ll have to introduce the source, which means that you have to give enough context that we can understand it. For a quotation this might mean explaining who is talking, or what the quotation means. For an illustration or graph you might want to point out what it demonstrates and how it relates to your argument.
Next, you need to provide the source, whether by quoting, paraphrasing, or inserting an image. Make sure you cite the source, following the appropriate style guide in your discipline. For the rules on quoting and paraphrasing, please consult our pages on integrating quotations (in the section on Essay Writing).
Finally, you need to interact with your source. Explain any difficult aspects (key words, concepts, ideas), indicate if you agree or disagree with your source, and connect your source to the rest of your argument.
Tip: Don’t go overboard when you introduce a source. If you’re quoting, for instance, you often just need to provide the author’s name. You don’t have to mention the title of the book or article (or publication information) unless it’s immediately relevant to your argument. All such details can be saved for your Works Cited page.
The following excerpt from an essay on the death penalty is just one example of how sources can be incorporated. In this case the author has a mixed opinion about a source:
A New York Times editorial notes that in 1966 support for the death penalty was lower (42%) then it is now (“The Death Penalty, Nearing Its End”). Yet the author of the article nevertheless concludes that the United States “has evolved past it [the death penalty], and it is long past time for the [supreme] court to send this morally abhorrent practice to its oblivion” (“Nearing Its End”). Such rhetoric assumes that as societies evolve and become more progressive, they will abolish the death penalty. Yet people do not change that quickly, and it is quite possible that should homicide rates creep up, the public may clamour for the death penalty to be brought back.
Source: “The Death Penalty, Nearing Its End” [Editorial]. New York Times, 24 Oct. 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/24/opinion/the-death-penalty-nearing-its-end.html
Notice that the author clearly introduces and explains the source. That way the reader can easily make sense of the information.
Research is not meant to be antagonistic. You don’t have to critique everyone else. Instead, research allows us to learn from others so that through collaborative effort we can all gain in knowledge.
That also means that the tone of academic writing should be constructive. There is no need to make fun of others, or go out of your way to point out mistakes. Of course you can try to correct errors, and you may need to find flaws in other people’s arguments. Yet it is also important to point out areas of consensus and have something original and valuable to say.
So avoid adjectives like ridiculous or nonsensical, and be generous even when you’re being critical.
Students often ask how many sources or quotations their essay is supposed to have. The answer is that there is no set number. It’s always a matter of balance, of presenting sufficient evidence, of respecting the views of others, and of making sure your voice is also heard. If your entire essay is a string of quotations then your reader will wonder if you have anything meaningful to add. If you don’t provide proof or interact with other critics, your interpretation will lack depth. Doing research and incorporating research is thus an essential skill, and hopefully reading this page has given you the knowledge to write with confidence.