Primary Evidence is the thing we study. In academic writing, this kind of evidence differs according to discipline. In biology and chemistry, primary evidence can be an experiment’s results. In the field of history, it might be a letter written by a World War I soldier, a memo issued by a U.S. president, a Civil War bullet, or cave drawings. In sociology, it can be the data gathered from participant surveys (quantitative) or information arising from a case study (qualitative).
In the field of English literature, primary evidence comes from the poem, novel, short story, play, or memoir you are studying. Bill, for example, presents direct quotes from the novel The Sun Also Rises supporting specific claims he forwards in his argument, as well as summarized and paraphrased passages in which he describes, in his own words, key occurrences in the novel. Below, he summarizes a conversation between Jake and Robert Cohn, condensing a lengthy passage of dialogue into one sentence:
In an early conversation between Jake and Robert Cohn, Jake warns his friend that Cohn desires to go to South America only because he has been reading sentimental literature.
Later, paraphrasing the novel’s description of Jake’s and his friends’ response to a bullfight, Bill translates Hemingway’s words into his own in about the same number of words as the original passage:
Jake observes Brett for any signs of serious disturbance as she watches the matador kill the bull, but Brett is not upset by the scene. Instead she expresses her appreciation for the matador’s extraordinary grace.
These examples from the primary text support Bill’s argument, but how does Bill decide when to quote, summarize, or paraphrase?
These decisions are important ones for effectively incorporating primary evidence into an essay. Here are a few guidelines as you consider these options in your own writing:
Use the shortest quote possible to generate (a) the evidence needed and (b) the effect you seek. Be careful to avoid long quotes unless they serve a significant purpose in forwarding your argument. Do use quotes to “liven up” your argument, to bring the voice of the literary text into your academic prose.
Use summary to provide a broad-scoped piece of evidence (a long passage from the novel, for example) to the reader. That “Jake and Brett have multiple tension-filled encounters” (Bill’s summary) is evidence that they still care for each other even though they cannot overcome Jake’s impotence to settle into a committed relationship. There may be no need in this section of Bill’s essay to focus more closely on particular tension-filled exchanges.
Employ paraphrase when the content of a scene or passage is pertinent but does not require the original language itself. Bill’s description of Jake’s and Brett’s behavior during the bullfight is a helpful example of effective paraphrase use.
Although the proof that Jake’s struggles reveal the destructive potential of war must come from the novel itself, the primary source, Bill can use secondary sources to (a) help explain his perspective on the novel, and (b) indicate how his argument fits into the ongoing scholarly dialogue about the novel. Plenty of people have contributed to the conversation on the meaning of The Sun Also Rises. Bill’s goal is to say something new, to bring the reader fresh insight about the novel, to contribute something original to the conversation. To clarify the significance of his argument, he can integrate material from carefully selected scholarly articles and books.
How does one find and use secondary sources? Chapter 8 elaborates on these processes. But to get started, we can discuss some of the basics here. First, let’s distinguish between popular and scholarly, or peer-reviewed, sources. There is a vast amount of information available on a vast number of topics, both in print and on the internet. Most digital and print publications these days are written for a popular, or mass, audience. Since the average reader is not writing a research project on the topic he is interested in, most texts are written for the non-expert. Such a reader, having just finished The Sun Also Rises, might seek some basic general information on Hemingway or on World War I, which could easily be found on sites such as Wikipedia or the Poetry Foundation website (poetryfoundation.org).
However, the scholar who is working on her own research project needs more in-depth analysis than is provided in these popular sources. Thus, she must gather academic or scholarly resources. These are written for an expert audience, assuming that this reader already has a more sophisticated knowledge and understanding of the subject and is researching a specific aspect of the topic rather than looking for general information. These sources are often more difficult to find and obtain. They are rarely free and must usually be accessed through a university library system.
The differences between the purposes and production processes of popular and scholarly sources result in their having distinct characteristics. Here is a chart to help you visualize the differences:
|Popular sources||Scholarly sources|
|Example||Time Magazine, Spark Notes, or Shmoop article||An article from The Hemingway Review|
|Location||Newsstand or internet (accessible through a Google search)||Subscribed to by universities and libraries. Usually accessible only to members of those institutions|
|Target reader||Non-expert, lay reader||Experts/professionals in a particular area of study|
|Appearance||Glossy visuals, eye-catching layout, strategies to attract buyers/readers||Plain text; generally not marketed at all since experts
are professionally motivated to seek out this kind of resource
|Production process||• Written not by experts in the field but by journalists and other professional writers
• Fact-checked and edited by publishing and editing professionals (or sometimes not at all)
• Published every month, every week, or
|• Written by experts in the field
• Reviewed by the expert’s peers and accepted or rejected by their recommendation
• Edited by journal or press editor
• As a result of the research and peer-review process, these journals are usually published
|Features||Short articles, meant to be read in one sitting; no
bibliography; short, clear paragraphs and sentences;
vocabulary meant for middle to high school reading level; usually published for profit
|Long articles, sometimes based on a year or more of research/ analysis; include substantial bibliography of other peer-reviewed sources used in research; vocabulary often specialized, reasoning often complex, targeting readers familiar with the field; published by academic journals or not-for-profit university presses|