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Using Sources in Your Papers

Explains note-taking, summarizing, paraphrasing, quoting, and citing sources.

You've Got to Read It, Read It!

The first step in using your sources effectively is to read them!

Of course, if you have a paper due Friday and a stack of 5 books or 12 articles to use, it may be impossible to read every page of every source. If that's the case, use these techniques to make the most of your reading time:

  • Read all summary material.
    • Even if you don't have time to read an entire source, you want to make sure you know what the author's main points are.
    • Make sure you read the abstract (if it's an article), the table of contents, the summary on the back of the book, etc.
    • It's also a good idea to read book introductions, which will often give an overview of the book.
  • Read the chapter that applies to your paper.
    • Many academic books cover different topics in different chapters (some academic books are collections of essays or articles where each chapter is really a completely different source).
    • If only one chapter seems to be relevant to your paper, make sure you read the whole chapter.
  • Read the sections surrounding a section you plan to quote or paraphrase.
    • If you plan to use a direct quotation or paraphrase a specific section, make sure you aren't taking the author's words out of context.
    • Read at least a paragraph before and a paragraph after the section to quote (a page before and after is even better) to make sure the author is saying what you think he is saying.
  • Skim and scan.
    • Skimming means reading small bits throughout the whole work.
      • Some people read the first few paragraphs of each chapter, some read the first and last sentence of every paragraph.
      • The idea is to get a picture of the work as a whole, without necessarily catching every detail.
    • Scanning means looking for keywords or phrases that apply to your topic, then reading the sections in which they appear in greater depth.
      • Scanning can help you find sections relevant to your paper that you might not find otherwise.

For more information on reading your sources, check out these links:

Taking Notes

Taking notes is an important step in using sources, because it gives you a chance to put information in your own words. This both helps you understand the information better and avoid the plagiarism trap that copying and pasting can lead to. Note-taking can include:

  • Keeping index cards with individual quotes on them.
  • Writing an outline of the source as you read.
  • Jotting down points that seem useful or interesting.
  • Starting an outline of your paper and adding notes where you think they should appear.

If you don't feel comfortable with your own note-taking style, try this technique:

  1. Read a section of your source: the length of the section depends on your preference and how the text is naturally divided.
  2. Put the source to the side and write down the main idea or ideas of the section.
  3. Look back at the source and make sure the information you've written is accurate. Make any necessary changes or add any necessary details.
  4. AFTER you've done all your initial reading and note-taking, go back and write down direct quotations that you think you will want to use in your paper.

This method helps you make sure that your notes are in your own words.

For more information on taking notes, see these sources: