College-level writing requires you to use sources, either ones read in class or ones you find yourself through research, to enter the scholarly conversation on a topic. The tips below provide some advice on how to enter this conversation. Click the headings to learn more.
Expectations for use of sources can vary significantly from discipline to discipline. If it hasn’t been spelled out in the assignment description, be sure to ask your professor for clarification.
Start your writing process with a substantive question, ideally one you’re actually curious about. The sources you seek out, then, should answer genuine questions that arise from your initial consideration of your topic or theme. The sources you use should serve to illustrate, extend, demonstrate, and/or inform the argument you’re making rather than make the argument for you. Think of it this way: if you imagine your finished paper as a brick wall, your ideas should be the bricks and your sources should be the mortar—not the other way around.
Write a loose pre-draft of the paper built from your own ideas, observations, and questions without using any sources. This pre-draft can help you articulate your ideas so that you can more accurately identify the specific kind of information you need to fill gaps in your knowledge and strengthen your argument.
Whether you are re-reading class texts or conducting outside research, be sure to write down new ideas, questions, and insights as they occur to you. Otherwise, you risk losing sight of or simply forgetting details that might ultimately add substance to your paper.
Consider recording the following:
Recording your thoughts strengthens your voice and clarifies your thinking throughout the writing process by keeping you in conversation with texts you’re exploring.
Try to avoid selecting and reading sources just because they generally relate to your topic. Rather, think purposefully about what you hope to learn and how you hope the information will support your ideas before you delve into each source.
Some questions to consider:
Even if the source you’re considering ends up providing different information than you anticipate, going into your exploration with a stated objective gives you a point of reference that can help you more effectively navigate the material. Ultimately, this practice will help you maintain your focus as you explore new material.
Also keep in mind that while you will use sources to support your ideas, it doesn’t mean that you can ignore sources that contradict your argument. A strong paper will introduce such counterarguments and explain why your argument is superior.
Don’t add a quote simply because it seems interesting or sounds impressive. When selecting a quote, ask yourself what the passage will allow you to demonstrate or substantiate. Also understand the value of paraphrasing versus quoting:
|Quote when||Paraphrase when|
To prevent plagiarism, you must cite both quoted and paraphrased material. If you’re unsure of what needs to be cited in your paper, be sure to seek clarification from your professor.
For more information, see the books mentioned in the Additional Resources box on this page.
Consider these questions as you are trying to choose a research topic:
Research librarians can help you:
The more clearly and specifically you can explain your research objectives, the more specific the research librarians can be in directing you to useful resources. But even if you’re still a little fuzzy on your focus, research librarians can help you to navigate the research process in ways you might not anticipate. Check the guide for the subject area of your research or citation question to contact a specific librarian for help, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch with any research librarian.
The Wellesley College Research & Instruction Team would like to thank the Williams College library team and Stephanie E. Dunson, Director of the Writing Program at Williams College, for agreeing to let us reuse and share their excellent resources.