Skills to Develop
- Identify experience or examples from personal life as they relate to the topic
- Identify strategies for preliminary research on the topic
- Identify strategies for synthesis of research and personal ideas
- Identify effective techniques for quoting a source
- Identify effective techniques for paraphrasing a source
- Identify effective techniques for summarizing a source
Watch this clip from the TV show Mythbusters. It presents a common argument: that the U.S. government perpetrated a conspiracy to fake the moon landing in 1969.
(The video has an instrumental soundtrack but no voice-over.)
The argument for the Moon Landing Hoax depends upon two pieces of evidence: the flag was waving when there should be no wind; and the sun did not cast parallel shadows, as it apparently should have. How did you react to this evidence?
If you are like most people, you reacted with skepticism. Did the picture alone convince you that the shadows were wrong? Is it possible that the shadows were actually parallel, and that the photograph was simply unclear? Could you tell that the flag’s movement was caused by the wind on the moon, or could the astronaut have been moving the flagpole? Did you even know that flags are not supposed to flap on the moon?
Even if you offer “hard” facts like photographs or smoking guns as evidence, your readers will not find your argument convincing unless you show that these facts actually support your claims. You should provide as evidence not only reliable facts—facts drawn from sources your readers trust—but also the right kinds of facts—facts that are directly relevant to your claim and appropriate to the kind of argument you are making. If you can’t do this, you may have to make an additional argument showing that your evidence is relevant, reliable, and connected to your claims. If you can’t show this, you shouldn’t expect your evidence to persuade your readers.
For these reasons, the evidence presented in the Moon Landing Hoax clip is not convincing. No source is listed for the information given; we cannot be sure that these are the most reliable photographs and video footage available. The evidence is also unexplained. In short, the evidence here does not prove that the moon landing was a hoax—but it may accomplish the ad’s goal, which is to provide just enough evidence to get us to watch the show.
The following section will address how to supply evidence that is convincing, and supportable, as part of your academic writing.
Support and Elaboration
Support and elaboration consist of the specific details and information writers use to develop their topic. The key to developing support and elaboration is getting specific. Good writers use concrete, specific details, and relevant information to establish mental images for their readers.
Two important concepts in support and elaboration are sufficiency and relatedness.
Sufficiency refers the amount of detail — is there enough detail to support the topic? Any parent who has asked his or her child what happened at school knows how hard it is to get a child to elaborate on a subject. Good writers supply their readers with sufficient details to comprehend what they have written. In narrative writing, this means providing enough descriptive details for the reader to construct a picture of the story in their mind. In expository writing, this means not only finding enough information to support your purpose, whether it is to inform or persuade your audience, but also finding information that is credible and accurate.
Sufficiency, however, is not enough. The power of your information is determined less by the quantity of details than by their quality.
Relatedness refers to the quality of the details and their relevance to the topic. Good writers select only the details that will support their focus, deleting irrelevant information. In narrative writing, details should be included only if they are concrete, specific details that contribute to, rather than detract from, the picture provided by the narrative. In expository writing, information should be included only if it is relevant to the writer’s goal and strengthens rather than weakens the writer’s ability to meet that goal.
GUIDING QUESTIONS FOR SUPPORT AND ELABORATION
FOR NARRATIVE WRITING:
- Is your story developed with specific details that are related to the main event?
- Do all of the details move the story along?
- Does your story have enough elaboration so that your reader can see and feel what is happening? Can you show me an example where your reader can see or feel what is happening?
FOR INFORMATIONAL WRITING:
- Is your essay developed with specific information (facts, statistics, etc.) that is related to the main topic?
- Does all of the information support the main topic?
- Does your essay have enough information to fulfill your reader’s needs?
FOR ARGUMENTATIVE WRITING:
- Is your essay developed with specific details that are related to the main topic?
- Does all of the information support the main argument?
- Does your essay have enough supporting evidence to persuade your reader?
In the preliminary research stage, the you’ll begin the process of finalizing your topic, continuing to refine your working thesis, and documenting the sources to be used for guidance and support.
Techniques and Strategies
- use an online search engine (like Google) or print resources (like magazines and books) at the local media center or library to gain familiarity with a topic
- read a text’s table of contents, index, and chapter headings in order to determine your primary interest for the assignment
- examine sources to determine the availability of authentic, credible, current resources for your topic
- select a final topic for a thesis that permits focused research and writing
Finding the Scope
The preliminary research stage serves as an important connection between pre-writing and formulating a thesis. This stage is characterized by many of the components of the pre-writing stage, such as gathering information from a variety of sources. But rather than thinking broadly, as in pre-writing, the goal in the preliminary research stage is to narrow things down and home in on a reasonable scope for the topic.
This stage enables you to understand which of your ideas can be documented by sources. Even an opinion piece needs to be validated through documented research. Preliminary research also permits you to change your mind about the intended topic before too much time and effort are committed to the process.
Blending Source Material with Your Own Work
The process of research can be fun, interesting work. Sometimes it can be hard to stop researching, and start writing. You may also find that you find so many great ideas from research, that it’s hard to say anything unique yourself.
The goal of most college writing, though, is to showcase your own ideas. The research should take a back seat to your personal thoughts.
In practical terms, some ways to develop and back up your assertions include:
- Blend sources with your assertions. Organize your sources before and as you write so that they blend, even within paragraphs. Your paper—both as a whole and at the paragraph level—should reveal relationships among your sources, and should also reveal the relationships between your own ideas and those of your sources.
- Write an original introduction and conclusion. As much as is practical, make the paper’s introduction and conclusion your own ideas or your own understanding of the ideas from your research. Use sources minimally in your introduction and conclusion.
- Open and close paragraphs with originality. In general, use the openings and closing of your paragraphs to reveal your work—“enclose” your sources among your assertions. At a minimum, create your own topic sentences and wrap-up sentences for paragraphs.
- Use transparent rhetorical strategies. When appropriate, outwardly practice such rhetorical strategies as analysis, synthesis, comparison, contrast, summary, description, definition, evaluation, classification, and even narration. Prove to your reader that you are thinking as you write.
Also, you must clarify where your own ideas end and the cited information begins. Part of your job is to help your reader draw the line between these two things, often by the way you create context for the cited information. A phrase such as “A 1979 study revealed that…” is an obvious announcement of citation to come.
Another recommended technique is the insertion of the author’s name into your sentence to announce the beginning of your cited information.
When to Quote, Paraphrase, or Summarize a Source
When you present evidence from a source, you have three options:
- Quote the source by using its exact language with quotation marks or in a block quotation.
- Paraphrase the source by restating a short passage in your own words.
- Summarize the source by restating its ideas in fewer words than the original.
Which option you choose depends on how much of a source you are using, how you are using it, and what kind of paper you are writing, since different fields use sources in different ways. You have to decide each case individually, but here are some general guidelines:
- If it’s long, summarize. If a passage is more than a paragraph or two, summarize it. Never quote or paraphrase long passages.
- Don’t quote too much. If you use many passages from sources, do not quote them all. Too many quotations will make readers wonder whether you have contributed any of your own ideas.
- In the sciences and experimental social sciences, paraphrase and summarize. In these fields, it’s usually the results that matter, not the words used to report them.
- In the humanities and qualitative social sciences, quote only when the exact words matter. If a passage from a source is your primary evidence, quote it (or, if it is too long, quote parts of it). If you address the exact words of a secondary source, quote them.
You must always cite the source of every quotation, paraphrase, and summary, both in your text and in your bibliography or works cited. If you fail to do so, even by accident, you open yourself to a charge of plagiarism.
In general, do not quote a source unless its exact words matter to your argument. You should think about quoting a source
- when the quoted words are your primary evidence (for instance, in an English paper you might quote from a novel; in a history paper you might quote from an official record; or in a sociology paper you might quote an informant)
- when the passage raises an important objection that you rebut, and you want to show that you are not misrepresenting it or taking it out of context
- when the words of a passage are original, odd, or otherwise too useful to lose in a paraphrase
- when a secondary source supports your claim and is written by an important authority who will give your argument credibility
In a paraphrase, you restate a passage in your own words. You should think about paraphrasing a source
- when a source’s ideas or information, but not its language, are important to your argument (for example, if the result of a study of earthworms supports your claim, but its exact language doesn’t matter)
- when you can state the ideas of a source more clearly or concisely than the original
- when a source uses technical terms that are unfamiliar to your readers
- when you use many passages from sources (so that you can avoid having too many quotations)
In a summary, you report the main ideas in a passage in fewer words than the original. You should think about summarizing a source
- when a passage from a source is too long to quote or paraphrase
- when only the main ideas of a source are relevant to your argument (for example, if you want to address only the claim and reasons in an argument, not its evidence or warrants)
- when the details in a source might distract or confuse readers (for example, if a source raises issues that might interest your readers but are not relevant to your argument)