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.”

Building Bridges Between Your Paragraphs

by Kenneth Mai

Your essay doesn’t flow. Add some transitions.

Those words – along with comments such as “Needs better transitions,” “Where’s the transition?,” or simply “TRANSITION!!!” – plague many a paper that may perhaps otherwise be brilliant.

See, it’s like this. Pretend that the many ideas you’re churning out within a paper are islands in the ocean. (That’s a metaphor! Sometimes metaphors work nicely in papers! ) Some islands are bigger than others. Some are closer to each other, whilst some may seem to be drifting off far away from all the others. Similarly, some ideas are smaller bits a cohesive whole, while others require a bit more effort to reel in. Your task is to  gather these islands into a sort of kingdom that you rule. But in order  to make sure that you have full control over everything, you need to connect the islands to each other. Now, it’s fine that each island isn’t directly connected to every other island, especially when they’re far enough away from each other to not really be related at all. But ultimately you want all the islands connected to make up a unified whole. So what do you do?

You build bridges!

In the context of writing a paper, these bridges are your transitions. You have two ideas that are related— islands that are close enough that you can build a bridge between them—but ultimately distinct. In order to help your readers across that gulf, then, you need to put in a transition.

But what exactly is a transition? Is it one of the sequential words – “first,” “second,” “finally,” etc. – that were the gold standard of midde school writing? Well…perhaps. But you have many more options now.    The kind of transition you use depends on the relationship that you’re trying to build between two ideas, and those relationships can be quite complex.  Transitions can be as short as a word or a couple of words to something as long as a sentence or even an entire paragraph. What’s important isn’t so much the shape of the transition as the underlying connection that is being made.

Here are a few useful types of transitions to keep in mind.

  1. Sequential Transitions: Here, we’re not talking so much about “first, second, third.” Rather, this kind of transition points more towards the ideas that logically follow each other. Words such as “therefore” or “then,”  or phrases like “This indicates that…”, show a relationship between the ideas.  These transitions are used when one idea is the premise on which the next idea depends or when the second idea comes as a deduction from the first.
    Examples: Thus, Therefore, Then; It follows that, This indicates that, This implies that; From this we can see that, What this means is that…
  2. Comparative Transitions: Sometimes, it’s not so much that one idea is derivative of another, but rather that they share some sort of property. This is especially useful when the relationship between the two ideas isn’t obvious. This type of transition is useful in comparative essays (for obvious reasons) but also instrumental when you are using analogies to make a point about some sort of topic (such as talking about islands to make a point about transitions!)
    Examples: Like, Also, Similarly; Just as, In the same vein; This idea can also be seen in…, A similar phenomenon is found in …
  3. Contrastive Transitions: There are times when you’re neither describing premise-conclusion relationships nor looking at similarities, but instead focusing on contrasts: “This author says this, but that author says that.” “This appears to be the case, but in reality, it’s something else.” These transitions are useful not only in compare-and-contrast essays, but also whenever you’re trying to debunk a claim or to show another side of an issue. These words can also help you to move on to an entirely different issue.
    Examples: But, Though, However, Nevertheless/Nonetheless; Then again, On the other hand, At the same time; This ignores, It’s not…but rather, The difference between…and…is that…
  4. Summing Up Transitions: You’ve established an idea and thrown lots of brilliant evidence our way. Now what? In order to make sure your readers won’t miss important information, it’s a good idea provide the quick and dirty version of the ideas you just laid out before introducing your big, final insight.
    Examples: Essentially, Basically, Ultimately; In short, In other words, That is to say; This boils down to, The main point is…

Ultimately, the goal of these tools is to bring a sense of cohesion to your paper by showing the logical progression of your thoughts; they’re signposts telling your reader which bridge to cross and what the two islands linked by that bridge have to do with each other. These signposts ought to be everywhere within your paper, moving your reader between phrases and sentences in addition to paragraphs or larger chunks. Sometimes multiple signposts are needed to guide a reader across the bridge, because of the complex relationship of those two ideas. The primary goal to keep in mind, though, is to make sure your reader has a smooth trip. That’s how you make your paper flow.

In my next post, I’ll offer some examples of transitional sentences and paragraphs.

Is Your Introduction Any Good?

by Christina Twicken

In this blog post, I pan for some nuggets of gold in the introductory paragraph of an influential essay written by famed scholar and philosopher Cornel West entitled “The Paradox of the Afro-American Rebellion.”  Here is the paragraph:

The distinctive feature of Afro-American life in the 60s was the rise on the historical stage of a small yet determined petite bourgeoisie promoting liberal reforms, and the revolt of the masses, whose aspirations exceeded those of liberalism but whose containment was secured by political appeasement, cultural control and state repression. Afro-America encountered the modern American capitalist order (in its expansionist phase)—as urban dwellers, industrial workers and franchised citizens—on a broad scale for the first time. This essay will highlight the emergence of the black parvenu petite bourgeoisie—the  new, relatively privileged, middle class—and its complex relations to the black working poor and underclass.  I will try to show how the political strategies, ideological struggles and cultural anxieties of this predominantly white-collar stratum of the black working class both propelled the freedom movement in an unprecedented manner and circumscribed its vision, analysis and praxis within liberal capitalist perimeters.[1]

I share this introduction with you because it teems with lessons by which to live.  Here’s a breakdown of why this introduction is so intellectually and academically “on-point.”

  • Begins with a hook which directly introduces the tension that the paper will explore (the black middle class’s complicated location within the ideologies and structures of liberalism)
  • Moves to explicitly state [in the underlined region] the observations (evidence) that the essay will mobilize
  • Employs the first person to directly indicate originality and contestability
  • Offers a succinct thesis statement [in bold] which contains:
  1. A clear reason why this thesis is worth arguing (to identify and examine a paradox)
  2. An argumentative atmosphere (I could ostensibly come back at West and suggest an alternative vision of the paradox or perhaps a resolution to the paradox)
  3. An explicit allusion to the subject matter around which the analysis will be framed (political strategies, ideological structures, cultural anxieties…)

The best way to improve writing is to read good writing.  Don’t go and copy West’s thesis (!), but mobilize him as a model for judging the writing you do.  Does your introduction hit all of the bases? Does it have a topic? Does it outline the kind of evidence that the essay will use to prove its point? Does it explicitly state why such a presentation of evidence is important/revealing/inspiring/groundbreaking/original/unobvious/interesting?


[1] Cornel West, “The Paradox of the Afro-American Rebellion,” Social Text no. 9/10 (1 April 1984): 44.

“Do you know what a reverse outline is?”

By Daniel Gross

When you’re struggling to move forward in a paper, you can always move in reverse. Let’s say you have a draft, but you’re stuck. You’re not sure if the reader can follow each step of your argument. Now could be the time to swing by the Writing Center. But another option is a reverse outline, which is basically what it sounds like––an outline that comes after you’ve drafted an essay.

A reverse outline isn’t written on a separate sheet of paper. Instead, it’s scribbled in the margins of the draft. You write down the key points of your essay next to each paragraph. As you do, you start to see how the argument builds and shifts. It can be a versatile tool to illuminate your thesis, tighten your structure, and make things flow faster than Niagara. Let’s look more closely at what a reverse outline can do for you.

How is a reverse outline different from a regular outline?

Regular outlines are written before essays begin. “I. Introduction and thesis,” you might write, continuing: “II. Contextualize my topic.” Let’s pretend you’re arguing that the United Nations should protect the Arctic giraffe from dangerous oil drilling. Your outlined third paragraph might illustrate the problem you’re addressing by trying to show that the Arctic giraffe is in danger of extinction. Alternately, the third paragraph could show that the UN has a legal mandate to protect endangered species in general (which implies that you’ll later argue that the Arctic giraffe, as an endangered species, also merits protection).

One problem with this sort of outline is that it suggests that your ideas will be fixed before you start writing. But your essay structure can and should shift as you figure out what you’re really saying, which is why some writers don’t find outlines helpful.  If you don’t outline before you write, you’ll still need to figure out if your structure is working. Is the reader following me? Is my structure logical? Does the essay flow?

That’s why we need reverse outlines.

How do I do a reverse outline?

Let’s pretend that based on my regular outline, I write the following three paragraphs after an introduction.

[2] In 1980, the United Nations intervened to protect the Hawaiian camel. Hawaiian camels had long been threatened by intensive pineapple harvests. When the local farmer collective introduced a plan to double their cultivated land, scientists argued that the plan would seriously affect local camel populations. The UN, responding to this news, suspended pineapple expansion through 2020.

[3] The Arctic giraffe lives along the temperate sea coast of Greenland. Thanks to their long necks, they thrive in the shallow waters of the continental shelf. Their heads, adorned with blue fur, rest just above the water to catch migrating fish which swim by.

[4] In the past 5 years, Arctic giraffe populations have fallen drastically. A June 2005 Nature paper,  “Where have all the Arctic giraffes gone?,” raised a note of alarm in the scientific community. Its authors argued that oil drilling was to blame. Because drills produced destructive sound waves in the waters off Greenland, giraffes were adapting their behaviors by lifting their heads fully out of the water. Because these giraffes became significantly more conspicuous to passing fish, the scientists argued, these giraffes lost their main source of food.

Now I have my basic ideas down on paper, and I want to see if they make sense. Time for a reverse outline. We start with paragraph 2. What’s it about? It seems to give us a historical example in which the UN intervened, perhaps as a comparison to the case of the Arctic giraffe. We’ll assume that the introduction and its thesis told us the essay’s central claim––that the UN should protect Arctic giraffe species. With this in mind, we might scribble the following into the margin:

Illustrates historical case of UN species protection

For paragraph 3, we might try:

Introduces background of Arctic giraffe

For paragraph 4, we could write:

Shows that oil drilling may cause population loss

Now that we know the structure of these early paragraphs, we can re-examine the essay for clarity. First, we might ask: does a reader understand why it’s important that we know about the Hawaiian camel? The answer is probably not. Using the note we wrote––illustrates historical case of UN species intervention––we might write a topic sentence that makes the paragraph’s function more obvious, like: “The United Nations has historically protected species endangered by human behavior.” Now readers will understand that the paragraph is establishing precedent for the present case of the Arctic giraffe.

The function of paragraph 3 is more obvious, since it offers general information that relates to the species of interest. A different question is relevant, however: is this the best location for the paragraph? For instance, if this became paragraph 2, readers could be certain that the entire essay focuses on Arctic giraffes. But we’d also notice that the paragraph about Hawaiian camels wouldn’t make sense. As such, we might need to move the paragraph on Hawaiian camels to later in the essay. (Another question that we might want to address: does the reader know why background is important? If not, that might be worth mentioning).

Paragraph 4, finally, shifts the reader’s attention to the particular threat of oil drilling. It seems to lead up to the central claim that the UN should intervene to protect the Arctic giraffe. But does the reader realize the importance of this point? Because the entire argument hinges on the link between drilling and shrinking giraffe populations, we might want to highlight the point. A new topic sentence to start off paragraph 4 could address this, for instance: “Clear evidence has emerged that humans may be harming giraffe populations.” This makes the problem obvious and allows the following paragraph to address it.

What else can I do with a reverse outline?

A reverse outline for a complete essay has other advantages. Perhaps you notice that one paragraph doesn’t make sense in the context of its neighboring paragraphs. This tells you that the paragraph can be eliminated, or needs to be rewritten. Or perhaps two paragraphs have the same function in your reverse outline. Then you could differentiate the two to make sure you aren’t repetitive.

Or you might realize that your thesis and introduction don’t capture the breadth and shape of the essay that follows. Now that you see this, you can revise your opening lines to fit the essay you’re actually writing. In cases like this, you can see the real value of reverse outlines. Not only can they clarify points within paragraphs, they can provide the insights you need to clarify the very core of your argument.

If you won’t do it for the sake of your paper, do it for the Arctic giraffes.

Daniel Gross ’13 is an English concentrator and a public radio enthusiast.

In Defense of Close Reading

by Peter Bernard

Most of us have been there before: it’s midterm season, problem sets and take-homes lurk on the horizon, and you’ve got a paper due in a few days. What’s worse, you haven’t even touched the readings yet.

 You might think, I can’t do this. Given that the time frame is a couple of days and not a couple of hours, chances are you can. Or you might think, I don’t have time to do the readings—I’ll just skim them and start writing as soon as possible.

 What I want to emphasize here is this: Don’t do it!

You will be much better off if you devote your time to a slow, close reading of what you can get through and then save a little bit of time at the end for a very quick skim of whatever’s left. A lukewarm skim of everything will not get you far in generating original ideas that you can massage into a thesis.

And this advice doesn’t just apply to when you have a time crunch on your hands. As a general rule, I urge you to devote your time for readings, as much as possible, to a close reading, and avoid skimming whenever you can—even if it means that you aren’t able to get through as much of the material.

Of course, this depends to an extent on the discipline: skimming will probably prove more fruitful for secondary theoretical texts or historical documents, and for evaluating potential sources for a research paper it can be downright helpful (For good advice in this regard, see our  post about evaluating sources: “Should I Go All the Way? The Ten-Minute Drill”). Some students also feel like they have no choice but to skim, given that many courses assign far more reading than is possible to engage with thoroughly. Don’t worry about that—it is a problem all the students in the class are struggling with. Use our Ten-Minute Drill to determine what you want to focus in on, and then sit down to do some heavy-duty close reading. Above all, if what you’re working on is a “primary source”—that is, a source where it’s important to pay attention to form (prosody, style, word choice, imagery, argumentative steps) as well as content—then skimming will get you next to nowhere, whereas close reading will take you far indeed.

Well then, what exactly do I mean by a “close reading”? What are good approaches for reading closely? Here are a few pointers:

1.      Close reading, above all, means that you engage with the text on a personal level. Forget that the text is “assigned,” and try, as much as possible, to trick yourself into the mindset that you are reading it for fun or leisure. I know this can be hard. We’ve all been assigned texts that we don’t want to read or that we find boring. But that’s all right, too—channel your rage and ask yourself, Why is this text boring? Can I find specific reasons why I can’t engage with it as I would with other texts? Can I point to some specific faults that this text might have? Keeping focused and probing why you connect–or don’t connect–with a text is the first step toward coming up with paper-worthy points.

2.      Take notes. Different people do this in different ways. Many people like to highlight the text or write notes in the margins; I like to write out notes in a separate notebook. That way, I can keep the text’s slate clean so that I won’t be influenced by old thoughts on rereadings, and I can organize my points in a notebook in such a way that they work off each other. For example, let’s say an ambiguity has piqued your interest and you make note of it. It’s likely that the next point in the text that stands out to you will be in dialogue with the previous point, maybe clarifying it or complicating it further, and you can log this linkage in your notes, too. This is something you wouldn’t be able to do as easily if you were annotating the texts themselves, because the points are likely pages apart. I find that by taking notes in a separate place this way, outlines for papers often build themselves—you’ll find that your points start to connect in surprising ways, and, if you stay focused, next thing you know you’ve come up with a thesis with plenty of text-specific evidence.

3.      And of course, as I just mentioned—stay focused. Some people can read in noisy, bustling environments; more power to them. I can’t, so I don’t even attempt to tackle my readings unless I know I have a chunk of time on my hands in which I won’t be interrupted and bothered. That way, I can enter into the world of the text and let my ideas flow in tandem with its movements, instead of having start-and-stop, staccato ideas that don’t connect with one another. I know it can be a difficult thing to do nowadays, but close the computer, turn the phone off, and give yourself to the text. Chances are, you’ll find things are much easier when it comes to write the next paper.



Peter Bernard ‘11 tutors at the Writing Center and concentrates in East Asian Studies.