How Are Your Sources Using Sources?

A particular difficulty that novice writers have is sticking their noses into the seemingly eternal conversation of their fields. Ideas in a field seem to always be running beyond our grasp, expanding, twisting, and moving with the words of many faceless authors. Even worse, these faceless authors seem to be in cahoots with one another: they reference, in passing, extremely complex ideas in what are sometimes very subtle ways, and understanding such writing—let alone writing a response to it—is very difficult.

Despite this difficulty, however, writers can—and do—work their way into this conversation. They read the arguments, formulate theses, and stake out a place in this ongoing discussion. In fact, it’s how the conversation goes on: new writers contribute new ideas and expand upon those who came before them. One of the most important elements to learn in order to make such contributions is how the authors in your field are talking to and about one another. To put it more simply, how are your authors using their sources, and why?

Studying the source use of authors is a deep, rich field of study in and of itself. However, your purpose in studying source use is so that you can more effectively write yourself into a field. To help facilitate this process, consider examining sources according to the following questions in order to understand how your authors are using their sources:

  1. Are the citations author-centered or research-centered?Feak and Swales (2009) separate author-centered and research-centered citations. An author-centered citation places emphasis on the author: “Jones (2010) claims that, by 2100, there will be two tons of….” A research-centered citation, however, puts the data first and the author at the end of the argument: “By 2100, there will be two tons of… (Jones, 2010).” Neither of these approaches is necessarily better than the other; rather, each is a situational decision by the author about what is more important to emphasize.Sometimes, however, an author may fail to emphasize an important aspect of an argument through citation presentation. For example, if an author were to use an author-centered citation when a specific finding in that citation was the pertinent fact of the text, then that particular citation decision may not have been as effective as possible.
  2. In what depth is each citation addressed?Does the author make a passing reference about a citation, or go into some detail about it? It is likely that the author will do both, but with different sources. Try to track which sources get a great deal of description and which sources only get mentioned in passing. This can help you determine the relative importance of sources, as well as add information about a topic or concept in general.Of course, sometimes an author may provide a large amount of information that obscures the main argument, or perhaps only lightly tough upon a citation that seems interesting but does not get followed out. While some of these decisions may be due to the assumed common knowledge of the field or the limitations of publication length, you as the reader can determine whether those decisions end up helping or hindering an argument. Decide—while, at the same time, keeping in mind that you are new to the field—where you get a little lost, where you wanted to hear more, and where you found information that did not carry your understanding of the argument forward.
  3. What are the links among citations?How do the sources work together? How are they organized? Are sources discussed chronologically, or is it some other method? Are sources put into dialogue with one another (i.e., “Doe (2010) claims that … ; but, on the other hand, the findings of Jones (2014) indicate…”), or are they left on their own?Once you see these links, you can determine how clear they are. Is the author referencing well-known arguments, and therefore being brief? Or is the author glossing over little-known debates and contradictions? While you may not be able to catch all of the nuances as you enter the field, you can certainly identify links that are not clearly teased out, and look further into them to see how well-known they are to your field.

Once you are able to identify, through the categories above, how your author is using sources, you can begin thinking about why the author would use sources in that way. What effects would those choices have on the author’s intended audience? How would that help the author accomplish his or her purpose? Use the following questions to help you think carefully about the reasoning behind the author’s decisions:

  • What is the cumulative effect of this source use on the reader?
    1. How does it affect the ethos of the writer?
    2. What is its impact on the message of the text?
  • How do these decisions of presentation, depth, and links help the writer position other texts with regard to the writer’s argument?

When the author discusses other sources, it is to frame his or her own argument. How is he or she doing that? Are overall arguments remarked upon, or specific data, or theoretical perspectives?

  • What do these decisions show about the author’s intended audience?

Writers write with specific audiences in mind. What people, in what situations, and at what levels of education would be most likely to understand and be interested in this combination of source organization and argument? What key factors give it away?

After you know the author’s decisions and the reasons for those decisions, you can start thinking about how you can incorporate that kind of source use in your own writing. Do you want to aim for the effect that your author did? Why? If so, will using sources as the author did help you do that? Does it help you bring your own unique voice across to the reader? Is there a way to take part of this author’s approach for your own use? Answering questions like these will help you determine what kind of style is right for you in your particular article within your particular field. While there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to cite authors, specific fields have specific standards, and paying attention to your field’s standards will help you know how to organize your writing in ways that “count” for your field while also figuring out ways to craft a tone and style that stands out from the general hum of your disciplinary conversation.

As you read more sources in your field, you will see more and more citation styles, and you will be able to engage sources in your own writing with more flexibility. Furthermore, you can think more carefully about how your source use fits into your unique writing process, as well as your source reading and organizing process. Do you examine sources during the first pass of your reading, or after you’ve already read the article and figured out the purpose? When you’re writing, do you cite as you go, and structure your depth, source presentation, and links at the same time, or do you structure in a later pass of revision? The elements of your reading and writing processes interact with one another in many ways, so approaching one process differently inevitably influences your approach to the other.

Since a writing (and a reading) process is highly individual, you will be the deciding vote for how this new approach to studying texts is integrated into your existing writing activities, if at all. However, the questions and guidelines above will, hopefully, smooth the path of that integration to make it as painless as possible.


Works Cited

Feak, Christine and John Swales. Telling a Research Story: Writing a Literature Review. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2009. Print.

Kellogg, Ronald T., Alison P. Whiteford, Casey E. Turner, Michael Cahill, and Andrew Mertens. “Working memory in written composition: An evaluation of the 1996 model.” Journal of Writing Research 5.2: 159-190. Web.

Leijten, Marielle, Luuk Van Waes, Karen Schriver, and John R. Hayes. “Writing in the workplace: Constructing documents using multiple digital sources.” Journal of Writing Research 5.3: 285-337. Web.