What am I supposed to do with all these sources?

by Sophia Angelis

It’s research paper season again. We see a lot of students at the Writing Center at this time of year who have questions about how to make sources work in their research papers. The scenario often looks like this:

You’ve picked your topic for your research paper and you’ve collected all your sources. Maybe you have a novel or two, a scholarly article, a book of history, a biography of an author. Now you have to put your paper together, and you’re wondering what you’re supposed to do with all of those sources.

My Expos preceptor gave me some excellent advice that I still remember whenever I write a research paper. She said that writing a research paper is like joining a conversation. Think of your sources as everyone else who is already engaged in the conversation (i.e., Critic X, Historian Y, Statistician Z). Your job, as the person who is now joining this conversation, is to say something that hasn’t been said. Your job is to add to the conversation.

So how do you do that?

Here are five ways you can join the conversation:

Agree: You can agree with what one of your sources has already said. Agreeing, though, is a little boring. Agreeing with all your sources is the equivalent of standing next to someone, nodding while they talk, and interjecting a periodic, “Yeah,” or, “That’s so exactly what I think.” You’ve met people like that. They’re boring. So try to engage with your source in a more interesting way.

Extend: Your second option is to extend an argument that someone has already made.  Perhaps you’re standing next to someone who says, “Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, reveals that Victorian society does not punish men for failing to behave according to its moral standards.” You can jump in and say something like, “You’re right! In fact, I can add to your argument by revealing that while women are judged according to whether they are moral, men are judged according to whether they are charming.”

Complicate: Your third option is to complicate someone else’s argument. That usually involves agreeing with someone’s argument to a point, and then amending it. For instance, the guy on your right says, “The American Revolution drew heavily on French Enlightenment thinking.” You say, “Though the American Revolution did draw on French Enlightenment thinking, my examination of Thomas Jefferson’s letters shows that he amplified Enlightenment philosophies of state, while eliminating Enlightenment philosophies of religion.”

Disagree: This one’s pretty straightforward. Some nice woman says, “I think that George Eliot creates sympathetic Jewish characters in her novel, Daniel Deronda, in order to express her support for the Zionist movement,” and you jump in and say, “I disagree. I believe that though Eliot attempted to support Zionism, her portrayal of Jewish characters in Daniel Deronda is ultimately patronizing and exoticizing.”

Context: The fifth way to use sources is likely the way with which you are most familiar: providing context. This means using other sources in order to situate your primary sources against some larger background. For instance, you might introduce your argument by saying, “In 2001, President Bush introduced an education reform bill that he called, ‘No Child Left Behind.’ Among other things, the legislation required that all public schools take standardized tests in order to chart student achievement and progress. According to these tests, student performance in math has been declining steadily over the past decade. However, as my case study of the Boston area public high schools will show, this decline has been distributed unequally among races.”

To Quote or Not To Quote?

by Morgan Mallory

Quoting, in a sense, is the easiest part of writing a paper: someone else already did the writing! Deciding what to quote, however, can often be a challenge for writers. Then again, deciding what to paraphrase—what not to quote—is an equally important skill. How do you choose what to quote, what to paraphrase, how it all fits in with your argument? Is there a minimum or maximum number of quotes a good paragraph should have?

There are no hard-and-fast rules about what to quote, when to quote, and how much to quote. However, for the majority of the analytical writing you will do at Harvard, I have designed a few simple guidelines about when to quote. I have based these rules on my experience as a History concentrator, so note that my rules might work better for someone in the humanities than someone in the sciences.


1. Quote what you cannot paraphrase effectively.
For most details you cite in a paper, you should paraphrase (succinctly rephrase it in your own words). Paraphrasing is an essential and often underutilized tool that every writer must embrace. If you can say it just as well yourself, paraphrase! Note that you must still cite everything that you paraphrase. Never waste space with an unnecessary quote.

If you can’t paraphrase it, then quote it. If there are specific words in your source that are essential to your analysis (in other words, something that you “close read” to tease out the meaning; or in history, lines from a primary source that you wish to analyze as evidence), then by all means quote! Or, if you are bringing in the argument of another scholar, it can be good to quote their main argument in their own words before engaging with it.

2. Quote only what you wish to analyze.
A quote should always be analyzed. A quote is evidence for your argument, but never assume your reader (or grader) will understand why the quote is good evidence; you must explain how or why it supports your argument. Never leave a quote dangling. As a rule of thumb, do not end paragraphs with quotes, because this usually means the quote has not been analyzed. Again, assume the meaning of the quote and its relevance is unclear to the reader, even if it seems like the most obvious connection in the world to you.

A note on block quotes: watch out! Do not abuse the block quote. A block quote may only be justified if the entire thing is then analyzed. If a good portion of your block quote is not analysis material, you should narrow it down to the most important parts and quote just those parts.

3. Your voice, not the voices of others.
There is no exact amount of quotes that should be in a body paragraph. The number of quotes varies from paragraph to paragraph, and from discipline to discipline. English papers, for instance, tend to quote more than psychology papers since they are often rooted in analysis of texts. The important thing to remember is that your voice should always be stronger than any other voices represented in your paper. Then, use your words to set up the necessary context (through paraphrasing), to analyze, and to transition from paragraph to paragraph.