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Writing 7 - Alexander Chee

Tips for Writing a Successful Paper with Sources

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. 

  • Is your goal to persuade, analyze, report, summarize, etc.?
  • Does your professor expect you to use readings from the class?
  • Do you need to find additional outside sources?

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:

  • Are you looking for specific data or facts to back a claim you’re making?
  • Are you trying to find an example to substantiate a key point in your argument?
  • Are you reading to gain a better understanding of the cultural or historical moment you’re writing about?
  • Are you exploring the source to fill a gap in your general knowledge about your topic?

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
  • The passage is concise and can be used with minimal adjustments
  • The language and/or wording of the passage is important to the point you want to make
  • The idea you want to use is long, unwieldy, or in disparate passages
  • A quote would interrupt how you are expressing your own ideas
  • Providing information that is not key to your argument


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:

  • To acknowledge and credit the work of other scholars
  • To highlight and give authority to your contributions to the scholarly conversation
  • To provide a pathway to the sources you used and the thread of the scholarly conversation

Always cite your source(s) when:

  • Quoting from a source. You must specifically mark the quoted material and immediately cite the source.
  • Quoting a distinctive phrase, or distinctive word. Place the word or phrase in quotation marks and cite the source.
  • Paraphrasing ideas or information.
  • Summarizing another person's work.
  • Using images, maps, charts, tables, data sets, and other textual and non-textual material.
  • Using another student's work.
  • Using your own previous work.

You do not need to cite common knowledge.

In most citation styles, two parts are needed:

  • An in-text citation
    Whenever you refer to the work of another person, you must indicate within the text where you got the information. The in-text citation provides a brief reference and points your reader to the complete citation.
  • A list of works used
    The final page of your paper is usually a list of resources you cited or consulted. Use the citation styles page to learn about the specifics for the style you are using.

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.

Page layout and content are used with permission from Williams College Library; some content on this page adapted under a Creative Commons license from MIT Libraries.

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