Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

How to Use Reference Material in Your Writing

Imagine yourself to be an aspiring pastry chef. To make your mark in the world of sweets, you have decided to make the best chocolate chip cookie the world has ever seen. Your work will be the envy of chefs the world over, while people of all walks of life try to follow your words to cookie bliss!

The cookie walk parallels the journey we make when writing an essay or other work. We want to create something amazing, and often the only way to do that is to build on the work of those that have done great things before us.

While we are allowed to give our opinion in writing and to posit ideas and beliefs, we are expected to have an educated opinion. This happens when we ground our opinion in good information we gleaned from research and using those reference materials in our own writing.

Step One: Consult Experts

Of course, the first step is to know exactly what a good chocolate chip cookie is like. There has to be some way to judge your creation the best on the planet! So you do a search to find what makes a chocolate chip cookie great.

This is also the first step in using reference materials in your writing. You want to make sure you are going to be utilizing universally accepted concepts for your topic. While our chef might be relying upon the work of Julia Child to define what makes a cookie great, you should be consulting those considered the experts in your topic for words to describe the parameters of your topic.

Of course, we have to know where to look for these sources. To find sources, you can start with an Internet search, like Google Scholar, as well as visiting your library, reading books on the subject, and even consulting with individuals that work in the field. One of the highest levels of source materials you can use in academic writing is articles found in peer reviewed scholarly journals.

Another important step is to try to find primary sources. Primary sources are first-hand accounts of events. They are original research, thinking, or discovery on a topic or event, and are written or created by people who actually experienced the event. Correspondence, diaries, manuscripts, sketchbooks, creative works, employee records, and original scholarship or research records are all examples of primary sources. Secondary sources, on the other hand, analyze, synthesize, and interpret primary sources. Examples of secondary sources include textbooks, articles, and encyclopedias. Sometimes, the boundary between primary and secondary sources can be blurry. For instance, a scholarly article is often treated as a secondary source, but it can also present original research, which makes it a primary source. It is always best to use a primary source when available. This ensures you are accurately quoting the original author’s work. The only way to know if the original author was quoted accurately or in context is to view it for yourself.

Step Two: Broad, Then Narrow

Looking back at our baking journey, while we now understand what makes a cookie great, now we have to figure out how to bake any cookie well. There is really no need to reinvent the wheel here. We should be digging through a wide variety of cookbooks that will give us tips and hints on baking a perfect cookie regardless of the ingredients.

This is also the next step in our process. Once we have used an expert to define the parameters of our topic, we want to cast a wide net for resources to get broad information for our narrowed topic.

To find an expert in your field, do an Internet search of your topic. One of the best places to look is in peer reviewed scholarly journals that focus exclusively on your topic. Other periodicals and even organizations that have your topic as their foci are also great places to look.

Once we quote our expert to get an accurate definition and basic set of facts we want to work from, we use that information to search for others that have also contributed to the field. There are times when your instructor will tell you how many sources you need to utilize in your writing. If no such requirement is given, a good rule of thumb is a minimum of two sources for facts and figures and three sources for more general information.

You might also use multiple sources that disagree with one another. For instance, one cookie baker may swear by aluminum foil to stop cookies from sticking, while another vouches for parchment paper. Acknowledging disagreement can actually bring more trust to your own writing.

Step Three: Using our Newfound Knowledge

Now let’s see what our chef is going to do with his newfound knowledge. He is going to take those pieces of information he found useful, then put them together for his baking basic steps. He is going to take the best of the information he found and use a little from here and a little from there to make his cookie the best it can be.

This is the same for our use of reference materials in our writing. We are going to take the best information we found on our subject and use it in our essay. Of course, we always give credit where credit is due, so make sure to cite your sources.

This means we are going to bring all these great snippets of information to enlighten our reader. Instead of our reader having to go through five, six, or however many articles we are using in our writing, we have gleaned all the information pertinent to our topic from those sources and laid it all out for our reader. We are also showing the reader that this information isn’t just our opinion; others have also done work in this field and helped to shape our definitions, facts, and insights.

Step Four: Going Beyond to Make it Our Own

One thing our chef must remember is that he isn’t writing his own recipe if he is simply using information collected from others; he must add something new to make this cookie unique. While he may have learned to add a hint of a unique spice from other chefs, it may be his choice alone to sprinkle a bit of ghost chili into his batter.

The same is true for our writing: we can’t produce a writing made completely of citations from other people. We have to add something unique and new, building upon the information we learned in our research.

So how do we make it our own? By synthesizing what we have learned and sharing insights not found in our research. Every time we utilize a reference, we are sharing information that other people have learned. However, what exactly did we learn from our research? By sharing what we learned, bringing various ideas together in a new way, and going beyond the work of others, we make our writing unique and new and worth reading.

Lesson Summary

So let’s recap what we learned in this journey.

  1. Step one is to consult an expert; this means finding information from individuals who are well-versed and well-known in the subject we are studying.
  2. Step two is to go broad, then narrow; this means to first look at a broad range of subjects, then narrow our focus down to more closely align with the thesis of our piece.
  3. Step three is using our newfound knowledge; this means to utilize the information that we learned in our writing.
  4. Step four is to make it our own; this means we added something new to our piece, something unique that we gleaned from the sources we cited, but we expounded upon it in our own way. Utilizing these steps, you will be able to enhance your writing greatly by using reference material in your work.
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