Writing about Literature

The Research Essay

Integrating Source Material into The Essay

In research essays, you can refer to sources in a number of ways. You can

briefly allude to them:

Many critics, including Maurice Bowra and Bernard Knox, see Creon as morally inferior to Antigone.

summarize or paraphrase their contents:

According to Maurice Bowra, Creon’s arrogance is his downfall. However prideful Antigone may occasionally seem, Bowra insists that Creon is genuinely, deeply, and consistently so (2108).

quote them directly:

For Bowra, Creon is the prototypical "proud man" (2107); where Antigone’s arrogance is only "apparent," Creon’s is all too "real" (2108).

With secondary sources, be very careful about how often you quote and when and how you do so. Keep the number and length of quotations to a minimum. After all, this is your essay, and you should use your own words whenever possible, even to describe someone else’s ideas. Save quotations for when you really need them: when the source’s author has expressed an idea with such precision, clarity, or vividness that you simply can’t say it any better; or when a key passage from your source is so rich or difficult that you need to analyze its ideas and language closely. As with primary texts, lengthy quotation will lead the reader to expect sustained analysis. And only rarely will you want to devote a large amount of your limited time and space to thoroughly analyzing the language of a source (as opposed to a primary text). (For more on responsible and effective quotation, see EFFECTIVE QUOTATION.)

One advantage of direct quotation is that it’s an easy way to indicate that ideas derive from a source rather than from you. But whether you are quoting, summarizing, or paraphrasing a source, use other techniques as well to ensure that there’s no doubt about where your ideas and words leave off and those of a source begin (see Using Sources Responsibly). A parenthetical citation within a sentence indicates that something in it comes from a specific source, but unless you indicate otherwise, it will also imply that the entire sentence is a paraphrase of the source. For clarity’s sake, then, you should also mention the source or its author in your text, using signal phrases (According to X; As X argues; X notes that, etc.) to announce that you are about to introduce someone else’s ideas. If your summary of a source goes on for more than a sentence or two, keep on using signal phrases to remind readers that you’re still summarizing someone else’s ideas rather than stating your own, as Lawrence Rodgers does in the example below.

The ways of interpreting Emily’s decision to murder Homer are numerous.... For simple clarification, they can be summarized along two lines. One group finds the murder growing out of Emily’s demented attempt to forestall the inevitable passage of time—toward her abandonment by Homer, toward her own death, and toward the steady encroachment of the North and the New South on something loosely defined as the "tradition" of the Old South. Another view sees the murder in more psychological terms. It grows out of Emily’s complex relationship to her father, who, by elevating her above all of the eligible men of Jefferson, insured that to yield what one commentator called the "normal emotions" associated with desire, his daughter had to "retreat into a marginal world, into fantasy" (O’Connor 184).

These lines of interpretation complement more than critique each other.... Together, they de-emphasize the element of detection, viewing the murder and its solution not as the central action but as manifestations of the principal element, the decline of the Grierson lineage and all it represents. Recognizing the way in which the story makes use of the detective genre, however, adds another interpretive layer to the story by making the narrator...a central player in the pattern of action.
—Lawrence R. Rodgers, " ‘We All Said..." (ch. 12)

NOTE: In the first paragraph, Rodgers summarizes other critics’ arguments in his own words, briefly but clearly. To ensure that we know he’s about to summarize, he actually announces this intention ("For simple clarification, they can be summarized... "). As he begins summarizing each view, he reminds us that it is a "view," that he’s still not describing his own thoughts. Finally, he uses this unusually long summary to make a very clear and important point: everyone except me has ignored this element!

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