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Essay Writing Tactics: Bringing in Outside Sources

Updated on January 9, 2014
A Cup of Coffee on a Table among Books -also known as a good writing situation
A Cup of Coffee on a Table among Books -also known as a good writing situation | Source

As I have suggested in another hub, essays are trials of new ideas. Making trial of those ideas often requires reference to other ideas that have been tried before, and integrating the information from those earlier trials has to be handled carefully and with respect it a writer wants to avoid charges of being a jerk, being unethical, or potentially breaking any one of a number of laws. Sometimes, that information is integrated by means of a well-crafted summary, as I have discussed; the first sentence in such a summary serves, among other things, to offer respect to the source by naming it explicitly, thereby thanking the earlier writer for the effort spent in producing the work. (Even if the summary serves as an introduction to an argument against the work, the earlier author needs to be credited for the effort of writing.)

There are other ways to integrate information taken from outside sources, though, and even in a summary, there are times when moving beyond a flat statement of provenance is helpful. What follows is a discussion of some ways to effectively bring outside work into present writing, ways that make the present writing stronger and help the idea of the present writing to pass the tests set out for it. As ever, my comments derive from my experience as a writer and as a teacher of writing; they talk about what has worked for me and what I have required of my students. Your results may well vary.

Quoting and Paraphrasing: Traditional Methods with Contemporary Adjustments

Perhaps the most direct means of making use of outside materials is to incorporate them into the present writing. This can take the form of a summary, as a previous hub notes. More frequently, it will take the form of a quotation or a paraphrase; it will either reproduce the words used by the outside materials or it will restate them in a way that aids understanding of them. Both can be greatly effective in strengthening the present writing, although both can easily be overused (it is indeed one of the chief markers of novice academic writing that it is over-reliant on quoted and paraphrased material); the thing to remember in using any outside material is that it is used to supplement the present writing, not to stand in for it. I tell my students that I am able to find and read the outside material more quickly than they are; I do not need them to report the outside information. What I need from them is their explanation of how that information leads to their ideas, and while that does require clear reference to the information, it goes far beyond that reference. The same is true for other readers; the outside materials are accessible from themselves, but the idea-testing that they support is not, and it is that testing that readers need to see.

Neither quotation not paraphrase should be simply dropped into a piece of writing; each use should be put in context and smoothly integrated into the flow of the text so that the reader is presented the information without the shock of a sudden shift. Doing this requires having a clear idea of why the outside material should be brought into the present writing; as with summaries, quotations and paraphrases work well as examples to support the testing of ideas or as points against which to push with the idea of the present writing.

In the former instance, where the quotation or paraphrase is used as an illustrative example to support a test of an idea, it should be introduced with one of several transitional devices such as "For example," "Another example," "For instance," or "Confirming this," with a comma following the device. The latter instance, which typically does not have something from which to transition, can skip this step and move directly into what follows the comma for a quotation used as a supporting example.

What follows is a statement identifying the source. Such a statement can be used every time a given piece of outside material is used, which helps the reader know what is coming from where. Something like "Source X notes" or "Author Y asserts" will work well in such a case. And the first time a given source is used, more can be done. Readers want to know why they should bother to pay attention to the outside materials used, so offering readers this information when a given piece of outside material is first used is helpful. It can usefully take the form of a brief adjectival descriptor of the source or of an inserted parenthetical phrase, one bracketed by commas and which offers a concise statement of the most relevant factor asserting the source's reliability. Such a statement will read something like "Award-winning game designer Ben Egan notes that the game is among the best he has seen" or "John Smith, Professor of English at Major State University, says 'Malory is the greatest Arthurian author.'" In each case, the source of the information is identified, justification for the source's reliability is offered, and the information itself is presented, quickly and seamlessly.

Thereafter, references to the same material will simply name the source. The value of the source will have already been asserted; repetition of that assertion will suggest to the reader that the writer needs convincing of the value of the outside material, which is not helpful. "Egan adds that 'the game is a bit overpriced'" or "Smith also notes that Malory is undervalued in literature surveys" will suffice.

Linking: Online Preferred

The increasing prevalence of online discourse--which still requires much writing, despite the ease with which it facilitates audio-visual data--has come with a shift in the way outside materials are referenced and incorporated into present writing. While quotation and paraphrase still happen--and they probably always will, so that handling them well will remain a vital skill--an increasing amount of outside-material-integration takes the form of the hyperlink: an in-text connection between one online document and another. To be truly effective, however, a link cannot simply be dropped into a piece of writing; like quotation and paraphrase, a link has to be given context and a reason to be, and like them, it has to be clear.

One thing that the link does do well is avoid the problem that quotations and paraphrases have of overuse. While it is certainly possible to spam a given online document with links (which is bad; please do not do it), a well-formatted quotation or paraphrase can easily run away with the writer, and a well-formatted link is far less likely to do so. It stands out more than the quotation and paraphrase do, so it is easier to see if it has run on too long, and it tends to be shorter in the text in any event, so that there is less call to overuse it. Thus, while such overuse can still happen, it is far easier to prevent with hyperlinks than with quotation and paraphrase; it is more likely that the link will be embedded in the testing of ideas that readers want to see.

Different software programs will have different methods for the actual insertion of a hyperlink into online text; a discussion of the software component of placing one is beyond the scope of this document. What is well within its scope, however, is a note on the text that ought to encapsulate that link. There should be no doubt that a link is present (something usually taken care of through formatting changes imposed by the insertion of the hyperlink by the software), and there should be no doubt as to the kind of thing to which the link connects. Earlier in this hub, I make reference to earlier hubs; I do not name them explicitly, but I do note that "an earlier hub" is being touched upon. Ideally, this leaves my own readers in no doubt as to what it going on in the piece. And even though a link does directly connect the reader with the material being used, making it manifest so that it is less reference and more presentation, it is still good to give an indication of what material the link connects to; knowing where things are going puts readers more at ease. In such cases, the link should be embedded in the text that names the source as much as possible, as in a remark upon the current design of the official website of New York City.

Why to Bother with This

Knowing that many people will only glance at things, rather than reading them; that there are too many sources for any one person to track; and that there are many people who have gotten away with not doing so, many may ask why to bother accounting for outside information and why to work to integrate it effectively into present writing. There are answers to such questions; I give some to my students, which they may not always believe--until they encounter the consequences for their disbelief. Those I can apply, however, are as nothing to others that can be enforced (depending on circumstances), and neither set of consequences ought to matter against the real reasons to bother with this.

The reason usually most pertinent to my students, and which I tell them therefore despite its relative weakness, is that the effective integration of material adds length. Many student papers are evaluated, at least in part, based on their conformity to assigned page counts. I am not immune to making such assignments, although I recognize that good writing is good regardless of its quantity; I do so in part to oblige students to think through their work rather than simply writing one or two sentences that they believe might be the answer, and in part to protect myself from an overload. Whole classes submit papers at once, and I only have so much time available before they must be returned, with comments, to their writers. Even I can only read so quickly, particularly if I want to read well and with an eye to helping the writer improve. Appropriately deployed outside source materials, and the contextualization of them, offer students who are concerned that they cannot write enough a bit of cushion; both are helpful or even necessary, so the students' burden of new content generation is somewhat reduced.

The contextualization also requires a certain rhetorical awareness on the part of the writer, the development and display of which are far better reasons to offer the contextualization than the simple demand of page length. Knowing what materials are likely to be convincing to the audience requires understanding of the expected and intended audience. Knowing what materials are likely to be provocative does, as well, as does knowing which is likely to produce the desired effect. Writers benefit from each of these, and so they benefit from working through the process of contextualizing the outside source materials they use.

Too, writers benefit from the readers' belief in their authority, their ethos, and one way to cultivate that ethos is to be open and forthcoming about what materials inform the ideas writers advance. Acknowledging sources appropriately provides that information. Doing so smoothly and with grace indicates to readers that the writers have mastered the material sufficiently to be able to attend more to how it is deployed than to what to deploy. It demonstrates greater command of the subject, making the writer more believable and the writer's tests of the idea advanced in the thesis more rigorous.

And there are legal concerns to note. Laws will vary by location, of course, with applicable charges, processes, and penalties differing depending on where and when offenses take place, the contexts in which they occur, who commits them, and when they are discovered. In the United States, using materials without appropriate citation can leave the writer subject to civil and criminal suits based on copyright law and, potentially, fraud laws; the idea is that all material a writer produces is the writer's own unless otherwise noted, so that failing to account for the provenance of outside material is claiming that material. This misrepresents the writers of the present text as well as those of the outside material, enacting falsehoods that are not helpful for the reliability of writers or for the views of those who read them.

© 2014 Folgha

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