Strategies for Reading and Writing about Sources
Taylor Gathof, Consultant
February is flying by and we’ve reached that point in our courses where we’re frequently asked to read, respond to, and write about sources. Sometimes, we are required to read and write about sources we’ve been given in class; other times, we must head to the library (or the library database) and find additional sources to read and write about. We encounter assignments that ask us to write both short and longer papers using sources. However, even when writing a short paper with 3 or 4 sources, writing about sources can be tough. As a student and writing center consultant, I’ve experienced and seen how writing with and about sources can, and often does, leave one saying “I’m not sure how all of these sources fit together” and wondering “What should I say about this (or each) source?” Don’t be discouraged, though, because there are strategies that can help you work through such questions!
Oftentimes, when we are given a writing assignment that asks us to incorporate or respond to sources, our initial impulse is to start writing the paper and read/incorporate our sources as we go—it is a writing assignment after all, right? In my experience as a student, though, this strategy didn’t always work, especially when I was asked to incorporate upwards of 5 sources and make complex arguments in response to said sources. In taking on longer and larger writing projects as an undergraduate junior and senior, I discovered the usefulness of reading and writing about sources before I began writing a paper. By reading all of my sources and writing down my responses to and thoughts about each source, I found that I had a much easier time seeing how one source related to another and organizing all of my information. Also, I found that this strategy helped me spend less time re-reading sources, thus allowing more time for me to focus on the task of writing.
Here are three ways that you can record your responses to and thoughts about your sources:
- Annotated Bibliography: An annotated bibliography is similar to a bibliography (a list of sources in a particular style such as APA, MLA, etc.), except that in an annotated bibliography you write a brief summary and evaluation and/or analysis of each source. Often, instructors will require students to write annotated bibliographies as part of a research paper or project. Even if your instructors do not require an annotated bibliography, writing your responses to and thoughts about sources in this way can be extremely useful and valuable because it will save you time in the long run: not only will you have written a useful summary and analysis of a source that can perhaps be incorporated into your paper, but you will also have your bibliography completed!
- Reading Journal: A reading journal is basically a journal in which you track your responses to the readings and sources you encounter and can be either paper or electronic. This style is more laid back and less formal than an annotated bibliography, but you will still want to be doing some summarizing, evaluating, and analyzing for each source. I find reading journals particularly useful for a class in which I will be required to write essays and papers about the assigned readings. By keeping a reading journal, I am able to 1) be prepared to discuss readings in class each day, 2) add useful class notes to my existing notes, and 3) use these notes to pick a topic to write about and compare/contrast sources when it’s paper-writing time.
- Blog: A blog can be used in a similar way to a reading journal and, again, is less formal and more relaxed than an annotated bibliography. What I find most interesting, useful, and fun about blogs is that they can be shared. For example, in a class concerned with representations of women in media and culture, I was required to keep a blog in which I responded to class readings and sources that I uncovered on my own. We were allowed to make the blog private, but I chose to make mine public. I didn’t anticipate what happened next: people actually responded to my blog posts. This may sound scary, but it was actually incredibly helpful. Readers would often comment on what they liked about my analysis and evaluations, pose questions that I had not thought of, and offer additional sources that proved useful.
Now that you have some strategies for recording your responses to and thoughts about your sources, here are some questions to get you writing about your sources:
- What is the purpose of this source? What is the main argument?
- How does the author achieve this purpose or support his/her argument?
- What types of evidence is the author using?
- Has anything been left out, overlooked, or neglected in this source?
- Do I find this source persuasive? Why or why not?
- Is this source credible? Why or why not?
- How does this source compare to my other sources?
- How does this source contribute to my argument?
All of these questions will not always be necessarily relevant or apply to your sources, and there are many other great questions that you can ask about sources. The important thing is to ask the same questions of each source and write down your answers: this strategy will provide a solid foundation on which to write your paper.
Happy writing, friends!