Expert Admissions worked our magic with a webinar to demystify the process of using source material in your essays. After all, using sources is about much more than just making a works cited page. As we covered in the webinar, it’s about everything from carefully reading the source, to deciding how to use its ideas in your essay, to successfully incorporating those ideas into your own writing. And, of course, it’s also about giving the source’s author credit with a proper citation.
Read the highlights below, and check out the recording at the top of the page to see exactly how we put these tips to use!
Thinking with sources is a step students often skip. The process starts before you ever put pen to paper (or open a new Word document), when you gather the sources you want to use and figure out how you’re going to use each of them. In high school papers, you’re usually asked to think with sources in two main ways:
You use a source for argumentation when you directly respond to what it says. Say you’ve read a scholarly essay that makes an interesting claim. You want to address that claim in your own essay: maybe you agree or disagree with it, or you have something to add to it. In other words, you want to use that source to help build your own argument. Essentially, you (yes, you!) can engage in conversation with the author of that scholarly essay. By doing so, you might come up with your own, original claim, i.e. thesis statement.
This is probably the most common way you have worked with sources. When analyzing or interpreting someone else’s idea helps you illustrate a point, you’re using a source for example.
There are many other ways to think with sources. As your writing gets more complex (and as you move from high school to college), you might use sources to provide background information or as a theoretical lens to analyze a problem.
Writing with sources is more complex than students sometimes realize. It’s not just about finding the right quotation and sticking it in your paper. There are many strategic ways to incorporate someone else’s idea into your writing, such as:
A summary is a broad overview of a source. Often, you’ll want to use a summary the first time you mention a source to introduce it and explain what it’s about.
Paraphrase is putting an idea in your own words. You should paraphrase someone else’s idea when the concept is more important than the specific way it’s worded. Often, you can state an idea more clearly or concisely than the source text did. Paraphrase is also a great way to show your teachers that you’ve really understood what you’ve read; you’re not just repeating it back exactly as it was written. But be careful! You can’t just change one or two words and call it a paraphrase.
3. Direct Quotation
Direct quotation is probably the most common way high school students engage with sources — and you might be surprised to learn that it’s best used sparingly. Direct quotation is using an author’s exact words inside quotation marks. This is helpful when you want to analyze or interpret the exact quotation as written — for instance, to point out word choice or grammatical structure. When your teacher talks about doing a “close reading” or “close analysis,” they’re asking you to look at those specifics.
To Cite or Not to Cite (and How)?
- Always use in-text citations with paraphrase and direct quotation.
- Use in-text citations if you’re summarizing a specific source.
- You don’t need to cite “common knowledge,” like the plot of a fairy tale that can be found in many sources from different cultures.
- Include full citations of all sources, whether in footnotes or on a works cited page.
- Follow the citation style your teacher prefers (usually APA for scientific papers and MLA for the humanities).
- You can use brackets to slightly alter a quotation — for instance, for clarification (e.g. “she eats the poisoned apple” becomes “[Snow White] eats the poisoned apple”) or if the grammatical structure doesn’t quite fit with the sentence you’re writing.
- You can use an ellipsis (…) to shorten a direct quotation if you’re analyzing only part of it. Place an ellipsis at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the quotation – or even all three at once.
- If there is a mistake in your source text, you can signal that you know it’s wrong by using [sic]. For example, “They made there [sic] beds.” Think of “[sic]” as Latin for “that’s not my mistake.”
- You can find helpful guides to different citation styles at the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University.
For more about how to think and write with sources, watch the webinar at the top of the page.