The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing

By Michael Harvey | Go to book overview

6 Using Sources

LIKE MOST WRITING done in the professional world, college essays are examples of persuasive writing. To persuade, essays must offer evidence for their claims, and one of the most standard forms of evidence is a source. There are two kinds of sources: primary and secondary. Primary sources are the raw material—things like literary texts, government documents, survey data, or experimental results—that academic work explores. Secondary sources provide a context—“the literature,” or what other scholars have already said about a topic—that helps make sense of the data from primary sources. You might say that primary sources are the what of scholarship, while secondary sources are the so what. In academic writing, skill in handling both kinds of sources is essential.

An inexperienced or careless scholar decides what and how he will argue early on, not anticipating either to be changed much by his research. He gathers source material aimlessly—a library book or two here, an Internet search there, perhaps a few quoted passages from an assigned text—and then uses whatever he has turned up, without worrying too much about its quality or usefulness. This is not the way to win over your reader. An experienced scholar, by contrast, crafts her argument while patiently exploring sources. She realizes that for any topic she cares to study, from acid rain to zydeco, there are sources, some especially influential and important. When a writer has systematically gathered good source material and let it shape her argument, she is much more likely to gain the reader's sympathetic interest. We like reading such works because they make us feel like we're listening to a sharp and lively conversation of ideas:

Ever since Marshall Sahlins published his influential book Stone Age
Economics
in 1960, social anthropologists have been inclined to view tra-
ditional societies as living in an ecological Garden of Eden. (Robin Dun-
bar, The Trouble with Science)

In a now famous put-down of Kauffman's ideas, John Maynard Smith
once described them, somewhat harshly, as “fact-free science.” (Paul
Davies, The Fifth Miracle)

-56-

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The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction ix
  • 1: Concision 1
  • 2: Clarity 10
  • 3: Flow 22
  • 4: Punctuation 34
  • 5: Gracefulness 46
  • 6: Using Sources 56
  • 7: Paragraphs 69
  • 8: Beginnings and Endings 78
  • Appendix - Document and Citation Formats 86
  • Works Cited 103
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