College-level writing requires you to use sources, either ones read in class or ones you find yourself through research, to enter the scholarly conversation on a topic. The tips below provide some advice on how to enter this conversation. Click the heading to learn more.
Expectations for use of sources can vary significantly from discipline to discipline. If it hasn’t been spelled out in the assignment description, be sure to ask your professor for clarification.
Start your writing process with a substantive question, ideally one you’re actually curious about. The sources you seek out, then, should answer genuine questions that arise from your initial consideration of your topic or theme. The sources you use should serve to illustrate, extend, demonstrate, and/or inform the argument you’re making rather than make the argument for you.
Try to avoid selecting and reading sources just because they generally relate to your topic. Rather, think purposefully about what you hope to learn and how you hope the information will support your ideas before you delve into each source.
Some questions to consider:
Even if the source you’re considering ends up providing different information than you anticipate, going into your exploration with a stated objective gives you a point of reference that can help you more effectively navigate the material. Ultimately, this practice will help you maintain your focus as you explore new material.
Also keep in mind that while you will use sources to support your ideas, it doesn’t mean that you can ignore sources that contradict your argument. A strong paper will introduce such counterarguments and explain why your argument is superior.
Don’t add a quote simply because it seems interesting or sounds impressive. When selecting a quote, ask yourself what the passage will allow you to demonstrate or substantiate. Also understand the value of paraphrasing versus quoting:
|Quote when||Paraphrase when|
To prevent plagiarism, you must cite both quoted and paraphrased material. If you’re unsure of what needs to be cited in your paper, be sure to seek clarification from your professor.
You need to cite your source(s) in order:
Always cite your source(s) when:
You do not need to cite common knowledge.
In most citation styles, two parts are needed:
While you do not need to cite common knowledge, it may prove difficult for you to recognize what knowledge is “common.”
Try to determine how scholars treat similar information. Do they cite it? If not, it is probably common knowledge, at least within this particular discipline. Do some cite while others do not? Play it safe, and cite. Is the information in question brand new information for you? Are you unable to find that information in multiple sources? Again, play it safe, and cite. If you need further confirmation, ask your professor.
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