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.”

The Quote Sandwich

by Charlotte Lieberman

I can still remember one of the most disappointing experiences of my life: I am sitting at a coffee shop ready to unfold the layers of greasy wax-paper enveloping my mozzarella and tomato sandwich.  According to the menu, this creation is adorned with a layer of pesto.  As I open each fold, my excitement grows. After about half a minute of unfolding, I finally reach the sandwich itself – and I take a bite.  And so here we are, at one of the most disappointing experiences of my life: first, the bread was thin and dry, failing to provide the mozzarella and tomato with any structure; second, there was hardly any mozzarella or tomato on the sandwich – it did not succeed in making any sort of statement to my palate; finally – and perhaps most disappointingly– the sandwich-maker forgot the pesto, such that the sandwich lacked any sort of binding agent to permit the flavors to marry and complement each other.  Overall, my sandwich was disjointed, boring, and left me with no feeling or thoughts other than an incessantly disappointing question: “Why?!”

The only thing more disappointing than a poorly constructed mozzarella and tomato sandwich is a poorly constructed quote sandwich.  “A quote sandwich?” you may be asking yourself – and thus I will reply, “Indeed! A quote sandwich!”  When embarking on the journey of making a quote sandwich, the first step is to determine the filling – that is, the quote itself.  Sure, the quote should be zesty like a pesto-drenched piece of mozzarella cheese, but more importantly, how does this quote serve as evidence for your thesis? In cases where quotes are necessary for your paper (it is important to note that they are not in certain fields – social sciences or psychology, for example), they should likewise not be injected or shoved into your paper as filler.  Quotes give you authority – so before selecting a quote, examine why you are choosing this quote —what is its significance to your argument?

In order to make sense of the various components in a quote sandwich, I will provide an example from an essay by Harvard College Writing Center tutor Madeline Magnuson (’13).  In her essay, which was published in this year’s Exposé, Madeline tackles the thematic thread of marriage in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and analyzes how the engagement of Jane and Rocheseter, the novel’s central figures, causes anxiety and tension amidst the societal demands within the narrative’s landscape. 

The top layer of a quote sandwich should not be analogous to the dry piece of bread that failed to provide structure for my coffee shop sandwich.  Instead, the top layer should be fresh and read well even without the quote.  Think of my disappointing sandwich as a counterfactual: in an idea world, the bread would have been fresh and fluffy enough to give structure to the sandwich, and the pesto adornment would have made the flavors more interesting. Together, the bread and pesto would have made the whole sandwich experience more cohesive and enjoyable. In the same way, the sentence before a quotation should create a fluid transition between the ideas preceding the quotation and the quotation itself.  Like the bread of a good sandwich, the sentence should provide the topic and context for the quotation.

Madeline begins her first body paragraph by situating the reader within the narrative context of Jane Eyre, while also allowing the reader to track her train of thought in her paper’s own arc. Madeline writes, “On the eve of their engagement, Jane and Rochester regard each other as equals because their relationship is conducted in social isolation. Brontë draws clear parallels between the garden in the proposal scene and the Garden of Eden. She explicitly describes the garden as ‘Eden-like’ (286), but also includes more subtle imagery.” Here, we see a perfect top layer of a quote sandwich.  In her topic sentence, Madeline provides narrative context by telling the reader that she will be analyzing a scene from the novel “on the eve of their [Jane and Rochester’s] engagement.”  Further, she makes a clear argument by stating that Jane and Rochester “regard each other as equals because their relationship is conducted in social isolation.” Before introducing the quote, Madeline provides the reader with a clear, confident statement that adequately sets the stage for the material she is analyzing as she asserts the presence of her argumentative lens. 

With this well-baked slice of bread, Madeline has prepared us for the tasty filler of the quote sandwich.  Put most simply, after the introduction to the quote comes the quote itself. In Madeline’s essay, she immediately introduces her central quote, what she calls “subtle imagery,” after first referring to the snippet from the novel that describes the garden as “Eden-like.” She begins, “Rochester tells Jane: “[I]t is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame” (291).”  Madeline’s quote sandwich filling is indeed tasty, and successfully placed in the structure of her paper. 

As we saw in the “bread” or first layer of her quote sandwich, Madeline asserted her argument – telling the reader that she will analyze how equality functions between Jane and Rochester in relation to society – and then tells the reader how she will analyze a scene from the novel in which Brontë compares the garden in the narrative to the Garden of Eden.  Before we see analysis of the quote, it is clear why it is relevant to Madeline’s essay.  On a concrete level, she chose a quote that alluded to “left ribs,” an image that immediately calls to mind the Garden of Eden.  On a more subtle level, Madeline’s quote is strong because it is nuanced.  The text Madeline chose is uttered from the mouth of a character, giving the words a complex layer of subjectivity. Additionally, the character speaking uses the conditional tense (“It is as if…”), raising the question of the character’s inner desires and hopes.  In this way, Madeline’s quote is related to her thesis in a way that is clear and uncomplicated, but also invites the reader to continue reading the paper; with its Biblical imagery and grammatical nuances, this excerpt from the novel is undoubtedly a piece of text that requires sensitive analysis. 

With the filling successfully placed on the bread, we can now look at the next and final structural layer of the quote sandwich.  This layer is complicated to explore, as it is analogous both to the pesto layer and the final layer of bread in the real” sandwich I initially described.  This final layer of the sandwich should explain to the reader why you chose this quote. Explain how it relates to your thesis, and more specifically, what its function is in the scope of your paragraph’s main point.   In other words, the final layer of a quote sandwich should function similarly to the first layer of “bread” in the quote sandwich – it should concisely tell the reader why it is there in the paper such that the essay moves smoothly from one paragraph to another.  But in addition to explaining how the quote relates to the thesis, this final structural layer should also delicately explore the details at work in the quote that make it worth looking at more closely.  This is the pesto layer on the bread.

In order to see the pesto at work, let us look at Madeline’s quote sandwich’s final layer. Madeline writes,

This echoes the Biblical story in which Eve is created from Adam’s left rib, forming a bond of kinship and likeness. The allusions to Eden are significant not only because of the hidden temptation that occurs that night in the form of Rochester’s proposal, but also because of the nature of the Garden of Eden: it is pre-social. Only two humans exist, and they behave as equals. Only after Eve eats from the Apple does God decree that Adam shall rule over her as they leave the Garden and enter the world of men. Inside the garden, Jane and Rochester are alone.

Here, we see the complexities of the final layer of an ideal quote sandwich.  First, Madeline reiterates how Brontë’s prose “echoes the Biblical story in which Eve is create from Adam’s left rib.”  Following this statement, Madeline first claims that the references to the Garden of Eden conjure notions of “hidden temptation” surrounding Rochester’s proposal to Jane. Second, she remarks that, in a more general way, the garden’s similarity to the Garden of Eden evokes a world that is “pre-social,” a poignant observation that is wholly connected to Madeline’s thesis.  Then, Madeline explains what she means by this term “pre-social” in order for the reader to better understand why she is using this quote as evidence for her paper.  She explains, “Only two humans exist” and thus “…they behave as equals.”  In order to fully hammer in the comparison between the Garden of Eden and the world of the novel, Madeline provides the reader with a clear parallelism between the Biblical narrative and the relationship between Eve and Adam, and the world of the novel, “Inside the garden,” specifically where “Jane and Rochester are alone.”

By exploring the quote on so many levels, Madeline offered the reader “pesto” – that is, she demonstrated her aesthetic flourish and enjoyment in the writing process by dissecting the quotes so profoundly and thoroughly.  Finally, by closing her thought, she provided the second slice of bread for her sandwich.

In the world of quote sandwiches, an open face sandwich is not possible, so do not forget to provide context for your quote. In the world of any kind of sandwiches, a bottomless sandwich is never possible – so do not forget your analysis, and make sure to include the pesto.

Charlotte Lieberman ‘13 tutors at the Writing Center.

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.