Writing with Sources
Consulting outside sources during a research
project is as important as listening before you talk in a
conversation. In writing, your contribution to an academic
(or other) discussion becomes meaningful when you seek and
incorporate what others have said on your subject. This page
offers guidance on consulting sources purposefully, selecting
sources to use, and incorporating them effectively in your
Begin with a Research Question, Not a Conclusion.
Incorporating sources in your writing often comes
more naturally if you begin your research with questions in mind
rather than conclusions. Meaningful research is fueled by
curiosity. A true desire to uncover answers can help you
choose a topic you connect with, find out what has been said about
it, and narrow your focus as you discover ideas you want to pursue.
Once you have a question, you have a reason for finding
sources. Writers who use sources well see at least five purposes
for consulting them:
- To use information that provides useful background or a context
for understanding the research question.
- To use information that answers a relevant question.
- To use information as evidence to support a claim or idea, or
in some cases, evidence that seems not to support as
assertion but might if seen a certain way.
- To use information from a particular author who is influential
in the debate about a topic.
- To use information to complicate a writer's thesis,
raising interesting questions. (Ballenger, 2011, p. 486)
Consult Primary and Secondary Sources.
Primary sources are original documents or artifacts that
constitute firsthand information. These can be diaries,
speeches, letters, official records, works of art, or relics.
Interviews that you conduct may also be considered primary
sources. Secondary sources are publications or other
works that interpret or analyze primary sources. These
include journal articles, media commentary, book reviews, critical
essays, or textbooks.
Good researchers use both kinds of sources but for different
purposes. One would use a primary source as a subject for
study or to prove information that needs hard evidence to back it
up. And in the same project, secondary sources would be used
to provide other writers' perspectives or to further discuss a
Choose from General and Specialized Sources.
General sources, such as those retrieved in a Web
search or from a general encycolopedia, usually address wide
audiences and discuss subjects in general terms. Specialized
sources, such as scholarly books and academic
journals, usually address narrower audiences in specific fields
and discuss subjects in greater detail. Specialized sources
are also often peer reviewed for accuracy and reliability, among
other things. For this reason, specialized sources are often
sought for authoritative answers to research questions.
General sources can also be useful, but not for the same
purposes. For example, if you're looking for information on
the impact of long-distance running on the human body, consult the
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. To
add a human element to your project, you might quote a contributor
to a forum you found through a search engine.
Critically Consider Your Sources.
You might ask yourself the following questions as you
evaluate your sources:
- Why choose this source and not others I've consulted?
- What do I know about this author's qualifications to write
about this subject?
- What do I know about the publisher?
- How are these sources in conversation with each other?
- How does the information in this source align with or
contradict other sources?
- What argument does this source make, and how does it support
- What in this source is most (and least) convincing to me?
- What sources does this source use?
- Would my audience trust this source? (adapted from Kleinfeld,
Writers incorporate sources' ideas into their writing using
three main methods: quotation, summary, and paraphrase. To
use each method ethically, you must
- understand and accurately reflect your source's meaning
- clearly distinguish the source's words and ideas from your own,
- accurately cite the source.
Shortcuts, such as "fluffing" (adding unnecessary words or
information) and "patchwriting," (discussed below), can lead to
accusations of dishonesty or even plagiarism.
Quote. When the exact words of a source
matter -- that is, when you want to analyze or distinguish them
somehow -- write them exactly the way you read or hear them in the
source, using quotation marks (" "). Signal phrases and
attribution tags, such as "Sipher asserts . . . ," help readers
distinguish between your words and those of your source. And
if you need to add a word or phrase for clarity's sake, put it in
brackets ([ ]). An example follows:
Ask high school teachers if
recalcitrant students learn anything of value. Ask teachers
if these students do any homework. Quite the contrary, these
students know they will be passed from grade to grade until they
are old enough to quit or until, as is more likely, they receive a
high school diploma. At the point when students could legally
quit, most choose to remain since they know they are likely to be
allowed to graduate whether they do acceptable work or not.
(Sipher, 1977, p. 31)
Sipher (1977) asserts,
"[Recalcitrant] students know they will be passed from grade to
grade until they are old enough to quit or until, as is more
likely, they receive a high school diploma" (p. 31).
Summarize. When writers want to quickly
sum up a source's point (to use it as an example or to otherwise
comment on it), they read or listen to the source, understand its
meaning, and then communicate that meaning in a more concise
way. Summaries can borrow exact wording from the source if
appropriate, using quotation marks.
Sipher (1977) believes that most
intractable students stay in school because they know they will
graduate "whether they do acceptable work or not" (p. 31).
Paraphrase. When writers want to restate
a source's points to examine them more closely, they try to capture
the ideas of the source in their own words, but in roughly the same
length as the original. As with summarizing, whenever a
paraphrase uses exact wording from the original, quotation marks
Sipher (1977) says that rather than
take advantage of the learning opportunities high school offers,
intractable students sometimes endure the system until they can
legally quit. But more often, he says, they just stay there,
waiting until someone hands them a diploma no matter what their
work over the past four years looks like (p. 31).
Project (Jamieson & Howard, 2011) defines patchwriting as
"restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying
close to the language or syntax of the source." This is often
done by copying the source text and then rearranging or changing
some of the source's words. Students sometimes learn to
patchwrite before they learn how to effectively summarize
Example of Patchwriting:
Sipher (1977) says recalcitrant
students don't do any homework and don't learn anything of value.
These students know they will be passed from grade to grade
until they can quit or until they receive a diploma. He says
most of them choose to stay in school because they know they might
be allowed to graduate whether their work is acceptable or not (p.
Compare the example above with the original passage. In
patchwriting, the structure and sequence of the ideas belong to the
source, but the line between the work of the writer and that of the
source is blurred. To be sure that you are using your
source's material in effective, ethical ways, read the
source, understand the source, close the source, and write your own
Try This. Consider the following
exercise, adapted from an article by writing scholar Rebecca Moore
Howard (1995). Try this with one of your sources:
- Read the source once through, quickly, perhaps only reading the
first sentence of each paragraph if there are multiple
- Reread the source, this time a little more slowly to get
- Read the source a third time, taking notes.
- Let some time elapse, perhaps a half-hour.
- With the source closed, write your own summary of the
information you are using.
- Look at the source again to see if any of your phrasing is
- If so, consider quoting the similar phrases if the author's
words are particularly important. Remember to use quotation
marks. Periods and commas always go inside the quotation
marks; other punctuation goes inside only if part of the
- Include in-text citations for quotations and paraphrases.
- Check your summary against the source to see if you forgot
anything or if you added something that shouldn't be there.
(Howard, 1995, p. 801)
Your first go at this might seem tedious, but practice speeds up
There are Genre Exceptions.
Occasionally, you may need to use source material that is so
specialized and information-dense that writing the material in
other words would be ineffective or unsafe. This can apply to
product labels, drug information sheets, or genres that may
strictly follow models, such as mission statements or
handouts. In these cases, to properly credit the source,
quoting may be the best method. If not, be sure to note the
way in which the source material is used. For example, if you
compose a mission statement using the structure of another
statement you admire, add a note at the bottom thanking that
organization or author for the structure of the statement.
Steer Clear of Plagiarism
What is Plagiarism? According to the
Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA, 2003), plagiarism
occurs when a writer "deliberately uses someone else's language,
ideas, or other original (not common knowledge) material without
acknowledging its source" (p. 1). Plagiarism is a serious,
intentional act (to be distinguished from carelessly or
inadequately incorporating or documenting sources). Academic
consequences include a failing grade for the assignment or the
course, expulsion from school, or even revocation of a degree.
How Can I Steer Clear of Plagiarism? The
short answer? Read the source, understand the source,
close the source, and write your own material. That
sounds simple enough. But ethical treatment of sources
requires time and practice. Writers sometimes justify
committing plagiarism if they 1) have limited experience in writing
with sources, 2) have not effectively managed their time, 3)
misunderstand the assignment, or 4) come from a culture in which
plagiarism is not recognized as unethical. In the long run,
though, whatever their reasons are for taking shortcuts, writers
need to understand that the lasting benefits of genuine learning
far outweigh the short-term ease of playing school.
The following choices facilitate genuine learning:
- Understand research and writing assignments as learning
processes and opportunities for genuine inquiry and growth.
- Learn to find, understand, and analyze relevant sources.
- Make it clear when and how you use others' words or ideas in
your writing. If you patchwrite, move beyond
patchwriting. (Patchwriting is defined as "restating a
phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the
language or syntax of the source" (Jamieson & Howard,
2011). Beginning writers sometimes use patchwriting as a
transitional stage before learning how to effectively summarize or
- Learn how writers in your discipline use and cite sources and
define common knowledge.
- Ask your instructor when you are unsure whether or how to cite
- Choose a topic early, and one you connect with personally.
- Start your research soon, take notes, and pay attention to the
words you see authors using in the text around their sources.
(Price, 2002; WPA, 2003)
It is especially important that you internalize your
learning. Synthesize your readings and other sources.
Ask questions so you understand your task, your role or purpose as
author, your audience, and the genre you're writing (Bean, 2011).
Take advantage of your instructor's office hours, and visit
the Writing Center.
Some questions have different answers for different academic
disciplines. So it may be a good idea to ask your professor
any of the following questions:
- What if you think of something and it turns out someone else
already thought of it first?*
- What if you find the same idea in two books?*
- What if it's something you heard somewhere, but you don't
- Can a writer ever compose "original" material, free of anyone
- Why does my professor say to cite everything that doesn't come
from me my sources don't do that?
- What's "common knowledge" in this subject?
- Why do all of my source articles use different format and
- How many copied words in a row are okay?
- Isn't it all right to use a source's words as long as you mix
in your own?
- How much of my own ideas can I put in my paper?
*All or part of these questions come from Price (2002).
Ballenger, B. (2011). The curious writer (3rd ed.).
New York: Longman.
Bean, J.C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to
integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the
classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Howard, R.M. (1995). Plagiarisms, authorships, and the academic
death penalty. College English 57, 788-806.
Jamieson, S. & Howard, R.M. (2011). What is plagiarism? In
The citation project. Retrieved from http://site.citationproject.net/
Kleinfeld, E. (Fall 2011). Writing centers, ethics, and
excessive research. Computers and composition
online. Retrieved from
Driscoll, D. & Brizee, A. (2012). Quoting, paraphrasing, and
summarizing. In Purdue online writing lab.
Retrieved from http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/563/01/
Sipher, R. (1977, December 19). So that nobody has to go to
school if they don't want to. The New York
times, p. 31.