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Working with Sources
Working with sources is an essential skill in many college courses. In an English course, you may be asked to analyze a work of literature, such as The Great Gatsby, in which case, you would be working with quotations and paraphrased text from the novel and, possibly, outside biographies and works of criticism, as well. In a history class you may be asked to write an essay about an important historical event; for example, the events leading up to U.S. involvement in the Second World War, in which case, you would need to back up your own conclusions with the work of respected scholars. In an environmental biology class, you may need to write a paper on an environmental problem, such as the causes for the decline of the salmon population. In this assignment, you would likely need to back up your analysis of the problem with research findings of environmental biologists.
To write successful analytical essays and research papers, students need to learn to work with quotes, paraphrase, and summary effectively. In this module, students will learn the skills and strategies necessary for effective incorporation of sources in their own work.
In this module, students will learn to
In a direct quote, a writer uses the exact words of another person while clearly acknowledging that the words belong to that other person. A direct quote is identified by quotation marks at the beginning and at the end of the quoted material, or by off-setting the quote from the main text in a "block quote" (when the quote is equivalent to 4 or more lines of text).
Why use a direct quote?
Writers use direct quotes for several reasons:
1) To back up assertions by citing an authority on the subject.
2) To offer evidence for a claim.
3) To call attention to particularly beautiful, concise, or insightful language about a subject and deepen one's own discussion.
While a student may understand how to insert a quote into his or her own writing, if the student does not provide a clear transition into the quote and a thoughtful explanation of the significance of that quote to his or her argument, the reader will end up extremely frustrated. It is a big mistake to assume that the quote will simply speak for itself. Certainly, if the reader spends time wondering about the connection, a connection will probably appear; however, the reader should not have to do this work; introducing and explaining the significance of a quote is the writer's responsibility. Look at the difference in the way the following quotes are introduced:
The second quote is not introduced, and so it is more difficult for the reader to know what to do with the quoted material. The writer puts the burden of communication on the reader, who must pause and figure out how the quote connects to the idea being developed in the paragraph.
Common signal phrases for introducing quotes:
There are several signal words that establish the relationship between a quote and the author's argument. Several of these words are listed below:
Integrating a quote into your own sentence:
A quote can also be integrated directly into the structure of one's own sentence as long as the sentence is grammatically correct. For example,
In particular, you will need to make sure that verb tenses are consistent if you incorporate a quote into the structure of your own sentence. Use brackets around any words in the quote that you change:
Commenting on Quotes
Making the significance of a quote to your own argument clear to your reader is perhaps the most important part of working with quotes. Without this explanation, the reader will not know what to do with the quote, and as mentioned earlier, will feel frustrated with the writer for making the reader do the work of figuring out why the quote is important.
Explicating Quotes in a Literary Analysis:
Commenting on quotes is essential in literary analysis since it is the text itself that becomes the evidence for an interpretation. In fact, in literary analysis, a writer's job is to explicate, or "unfold" the meaning of the text, and show the reader the significance of particular words or events in a larger context. For example, look at the way the writer explains the significance of particular language in Dickens' Hard Times in the following passage:
The writer's goal here is to characterize Gradgrind's value system as destructive and show that Dickens is critical of overly rational thought. To achieve this goal, the writer calls particular attention to the connotations of language like "gramnivorous ruminating quadruped" and explains how the language is overly rational and objective, excluding the magical and nonsensical experiences that are an important part of childhood. The evidence in the text is thus explained in such a way that it clearly illustrates this writer's argument.
Writers don't always need to supply in depth explanations of the significance of quotes; sometimes an introductory sentence is all that is needed:
"Wonder, idleness, and folly" are explained here as being what Gradgrind objects to as roadblocks to human authority and power over nature.
Note: Avoid beginning with statements like "As this quotation shows" and "As can be seen in this quote" to begin an explanation. These phrases actually detract from your argument. Just jump right in and focus on the meaningful words in the quote. Also, always begin an explanation of a block quote flush with the left margin. Since you are continuing to discuss the quote, you are not beginning a new topic and, therefore, should not begin a new paragraph.
As a general rule, one should paraphrase rather than quote a text unless the language is particularly succinct or beautiful, or the words themselves carry significant meaning. Yet, good paraphrase is an art form. One must capture the essence of an author's meaning without borrowing the author's language. Below is an example of a correct paraphrase of an author's work followed by an incorrect paraphrase. The original passage from E. M. Foster's novel, Howards End is presented first:
The second example includes plagiarized text. Several words from the original text are used (or are very closely echoed) without acknowledgement.
To avoid plagiarism in paraphrase, write your paraphrase without looking at the original text. Try to think of what the original text really expresses and attempt to capture that expression in your own words.
Sometimes, as part of one's own argument, it is useful to summarize a writer's work. For example, in an essay about the alarming decline in the salmon population, a writer might find it useful to summarize the theories for this decline of various scientists, or in an essay on the culture of African slaves on southern plantations, a writer might summarize an archaologist's findings at the slave quarters of a Southern plantation. The key to an effective summary used as evidence is in emphasizing details that are important to your argument without distorting the original text. (For more information on writing summaries, explore our module on Writing Summaries.)
Take a look at the following example of summary used as evidence. In this essay on the nature of "home" in today's culture, the writer discusses what home meant in other times, and she uses summary of a section of Rhyss Isaac's book, The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790, to support her argument:
With the sentence, "In other words, public and private life were not as separate as they are today . . . " the writer provides the context for understanding the text; she shows the reader how Isaac's argument about hospitality in the 18th century is useful in understanding what home is like today.
1. Why use a quote?
2. Introducing quotes
3. Commenting on quotes