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The previous sections of this guide emphasize the importance of you taking control of your essay from the beginning and putting time and effort into your own analysis of the text. However, it is also possible to consider what others - literary critics, historians, or theorists - have said about the concerns you are dealing with in your essay
Some literary secondary sources provide background information on literary texts, such as a text’s reception by critics on its publication, or events in the author’s life that may have influenced the text, and so on. However, you may find that you turn to secondary sources more for critics’ interpretations of the texts you are writing about than for background information.
Looking for Secondary Sources
For an English essay, a secondary source is anything that you use for information or for insight in your essay that is outside the primary text. Secondary sources can be
articles or chapters in books
introductions or afterwords to edited text editions
- articles in electronic/print journals.
There is a huge amount of information out there on just about anything, and any of this information could potentially be a “secondary source”.
Nowadays it is more important than ever to realize what makes a secondary source a trustworthy, appropriate one for an academic essay. The Internet has made it possible to access a huge number of websites on any writer or work, simply by typing a title or name into Google.
But just because something is on the Internet does not make it good. We all know there is a lot of garbage on the Internet. Accessing the Internet’s offerings by using Google or another search engine is to access a medium that differs from other media in a fundamental and significant way: unlike any other medium, you can publish on the Internet completely on your own, with no intermediary to evaluate, accept, reject, or edit what you post.
Academic books and periodicals/journals are published by academic publishers, who only publish writers of high quality whom they judge worthy of their standards. Websites, on the other hand, can be created by anyone and say anything. For the most part, your professors want you to read and learn from sources deemed of high value.
When you write an academic essay on, for example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you are, in a way, joining into an ongoing conversation about the novel that has been going on for years and will continue for years. Undergraduate and graduate students, as well as professors, all participate in this conversation, by reading essays, articles, and books, and by writing them, in response to the literary works and in response to the ongoing conversation.
This is not an anonymous discussion. Who is speaking is important, because, as time goes by, reputations and credentials are built up, and the scholars and critics gain a certain “authority”. When you do your research for an English essay, who says something is almost as important as what she says. That is why you have to cite your sources by name and say where you found them.
The critics you use have had to submit their work to a publisher, and their work has had to meet a certain standard in order to be published in a scholarly journal. These sources are considered, then, to be valid, trustworthy and good secondary sources.
If you do an Internet search, the hit list it turns up may contain some good sources, but many won’t be. This doesn't mean you can't use the Internet to find secondary sources. Avoid a plain Google search, but you can use Google Scholar to turn up scholarly articles and book excerpts on a topic. And widen your search tools from plain search engines to the online indexes available through the library website.
Essays for Sale
If you sit down and key “essays for sale” into a computer search engine, a staggering number of hits will be made available for you. Selling essays over the Internet has become a big business; committing plagiarism at university may be dishonest and morally wrong, but selling essays is not illegal.
If you use these websites in any way while preparing an essay, you are plagiarizing. Buying essays or subscribing to a web site that gives you access to essays does not constitute proper academic research, and essays from these essay stores are not appropriate secondary sources. There is no legitimate reason to turn to these sites in writing an essay.
Finding Good Secondary Sources for English Essays
- Many instructors provide lists, sometimes in their course outlines, of good secondary sources. Your texts, as well, may have forewords, afterwords, introductions, glossaries, background information, and further reading lists. Get to know your texts well.
- Critical, edited editions of a literary work usually provide a wealth of references to secondary sources in the form of "further reading" lists. With the names on the list in hand, you don't have to approach the library catalogue or online index cold but have some interesting, perhaps helpful titles to look for.
- Use the library online catalogue to find where a particular author’s works are located in the library stacks. Go to this location and browse through the books there; as well as the author’s works, there will also be books by critics on the author’s works as well. Browse through these for relevant articles and books.
Many university library websites offer subject-guide pages, specific to particular subjects or disciplines. The subject guide web page is the place to go to begin research in any discipline, not just English. The link to Trent's English Literature subject guide can be found here: http://www.trentu.ca/library/help/subjectguides/index.htm . The subject guide gives information on and links to the following research tools:
Online Indexes – Indexes are like search engines, but they search
only for articles that have been published in academic
journals/periodicals and other academic sources. You can search an
index for relevant articles. Many indexes make full-text articles
available online, some don’t and you have to find the print periodical
to read the article in full. They are the best way to search for articles.
Related Websites – The subject guide also lists websites related
to the study of English literature. Take some time to browse through
the sites listed. Note how they differ from essay selling sites in their
emphasis on the free dissemination of knowledge and on the people
and institutions behind the knowledge.
Reference Books - The subject guide also lists all the reference
books pertinent to English and where they are in the reference
section of the library.
- Google Scholar can get you started finding scholarly sources online.
If you do wish to use material from a website, make sure you thoroughly evaluate it before you use it.
Kelley Griffith in Writing Essays About Literature gives the following advice to keep in mind when evaluating web sites for academic use:
In general, websites are best when they meet the following criteria:
The developers are scholars in the field.
The developers are accountable. They tell you who they are and how to get in touch with them.
They constantly and thoughtfully maintain the site, keeping information and links current.
The site is noncommercial and is associated with a school or press. Be wary of the .com sites. More reliable are the nonprofit domains: .edu, .gov, .org, and .net.
Information and interpretation is well-documented and gives evidence of sound knowledge of the subject.
E-texts are edited recently by scholars.
(from Kelley Griffith, Writing Essays About Literature: A Guide and
Style Sheet. 6th ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 2002.)
If your instructor has limited your secondary sources to scholarly sources, then avoid using websites unless you are certain they are scholarly.
Beware of study guide websites such as Sparknotes,Cliffsnotes, enotes, the best notes, and Grade Saver. While the information there you may find useful, if you use these websites while preparing an essay, you not practising sound academic research and writing. The information found there is not necessarily university level, and it is anonymous so we can not know if the content providers have any academic credibility or authority.
Many undergraduate English essays do not require extensive use of secondary sources. Critical editions of literary works, the library stacks, online indexes and subject guides should yield plenty with which to work. Finding good secondary sources is, of course, only a first step. The second step is to use them properly.
Tips on Using Secondary Sources
- Use what the critics have to say to support your own thesis. That is why it is so important to follow good essay writing procedures and think things through as much as possible on your own first. Give yourself a chance first.
- Sometimes the well runs dry, and you just can’t come up with much on your own. Use a critic sparingly to give you an idea or spark an idea, but then try to run with it yourself. You will have to cite the critic for the idea, but how you go on to apply it will be yours.
- Sometimes you come up with something yourself and then find a critic saying the same thing. It’s still your idea, and you can present it as your own and use the critic to add support and authority. Sometimes you may disagree with a critic’s interpretation. Feel free to use the critic’s argument as a starting point and then present your own ideas in opposition.
- The main source of support and evidence for your points is the primary text. Try to draw your conclusive evidence from the primary text, the work in question.
Keep the idea of synthesis in mind. A synthesis is a whole that was created by mixing together separate parts. Some of the ideas in your essay may be yours backed up by evidence from the primary text, and some belong to various critics, but the whole is created by mixing the parts together. You, as synthesizer and essay-writer, properly subordinate the critics, and you use them so they can best help support your thesis.
Remember, yours is the intelligence that mixes together what you think and what others think (by always telling the reader when it is you speaking and when it is someone else and who that someone else is). Yours is the voice that should most strongly come through.
Integrating Secondary Sources into your Essay
It’s worth repeating; your essay belongs to you, so try not to let the authors of the sources you use speak for you. Most of your essay should be made up of your analysis and discussion based on your reading of the work(s) in question.
There are two main ways to bring your secondary sources into your essay: summarizing (and occasionally paraphrasing) and quoting.
Summarizing means stating, in your own words, a source’s main ideas, excluding supporting details and evidence, and it is, therefore, often a shorter, condensed version of the original information.
Paraphrasing, on the other hand, means giving, in your own words, a precise restatement of your source’s facts and ideas. Paraphrasing does not mean shortening, condensing or critically pulling out what you think are the source’s most important points. You are far likelier to summarize your sources’ ideas for an essay than you will paraphrase them.
Example of a summary of a secondary source:
As P.K. Elkin has shown in The Augustan Defence of Satire, satire and satirists were subject to much contemporary attack on their artistic practices.
The example shows a two-line summary of an entire book – the summary simply states the book’s main point.
Summarizing your secondary sources is the most effective way of presenting what you have learned. It allows you to come to a better understanding of what you have read because you must try to make the point(s) yourself. To do this, you must read closely and accurately and with the confidence to pull out what you need.
If you do not use your own words when you take information from a source, but find yourself using the source’s exact words, you are quoting. Quoting requires the use of quotation marks. Otherwise, you will be plagiarizing. To avoid plagiarizing, remember to do the following:
- Take notes from your secondary sources in point form and then restate the ideas using sentences and words of your own. Although using computers and the Internet makes it easy, cutting and pasting the exact words from a web site into your essay is asking for trouble, especially if you feel you are in a hurry. Importing long passages into your essay right on to the page means you have not taken notes, summarized, thought about what you have read and decided exactly how you want to use the information.
It is very easy to forget about quotation marks when you are
typing quickly and then lose track of where the cut-and-pasted
material starts and ends. If you do cut and paste, be careful. It is a
dubious technique and makes it easier for you to plagiarize.
- Avoid taking a note and then turning it into your own words and sentences immediately. Your goal should be to take notes from all of the sources you will use, first; then decide, outline at hand, where you will use the sources, and once outline and notes are organized together, then write. This will give you sufficient distance from your secondary sources so you don’t end up presenting copied sentences or long phrases as your own.
If you find your summary still contains sentences or long phrases
that are unchanged from the original, put quotation marks around
what is an exact copy. You will have a combination of summary and
quotation, which is fine.
- Don't feel that you have to find a synonym or an alternate word for every single word from your source. This is impossible. In the example above, the secondary source used the words “satire” and “satirists”, and it would be wasted effort to use synonyms for these standard and exact terms.
- Don’t reproduce a source’s sentence structure with only a few nouns and verbs changed. For example don’t do this:
Secondary source (taken from Meg Germenian, “Strangeness and
Temper: Pope in the Act of Judgment,” Critical Essays on
Alexander Pope, 1993):
"A reader finishing The Rape of the Lock knows very well he is
leaving a silly, misguided, sterile world, and he also knows that
the world as Pope pictures it was truly charmed, partaking of
the airy beauty and motion of the sylphs."
Readers, at the end of The Rape of the Lock, truly know that
they are leaving a foolish, mistaken, dead-end milieu. They also
know that Pope's poetic world is also truly enchanted, taking
part in the light beauty and movement of the sylphs.
This is not true summary, or even good paraphrase. It follows
too closely the organization and word choice (although
synonyms are used) of the original sentence. This is why point-
form notetaking is so important. If you take down the important
information in point form, you will be forced to make up your
own sentences when you put the point-form notes back into
As you will realize by now, skilful notetaking and summarizing are acquired techniques and require practice. Your professors know this and will be patient with your efforts.
Quoting from Secondary Sources
Because quotations are first-hand evidence of the contribution to your own thought, quoting at certain times from your secondary sources is desirable. Well-chosen quotations can add to your essay, supporting your arguments and giving them validity because of the authority good secondary sources have.
Be careful, however, to quote sparingly: you don’t want the quotations to take control. In general, though, carefully selected quotations complement succinct summary.
Effective quotations must be smoothly integrated into your essay. Resist the temptation to throw in a quotation because it sound impressive and seems to have something to do with your subject. Have a reason for quoting.
Some Reasons to Quote rather than to Summarize
1. When the way the source writer says something is so much better,
more eloquent or more memorable than any summary you can make
2. When you want to comment on, agree with, disagree with or
otherwise take exception to what the writer has said.
3. When you want to comment specifically on the writer’s use of words.
Of course, sometimes you may quote for a combination of these reasons or for another reason altogether. Just make sure you have a reason for your quotation and that the quotation supports what you are trying to say.
How to Integrate Quotations into your Essay
Your toal should be to link quotations clearly and smoothly with your own sentences. Equally as important, you must make sure that you supply any needed explanations of or comments on the quotation. Do not assume that your reader will interpret the quotation exactly as you do.
Mona Van Duyn describes the character, St Quentin, in the following way:
For St Quentin, writing is a way of life, and a total and successful
one; he has found his manner of commitment in a profession that
offers traditional sanctuary for the half-open heart. Style, he
believes, may save one—that is, may mediate between
unbearable reality and a bearable distortion of it. (Bowen 16)
St Quentin is the ultimate literate and literary man. Style in the creation of form, in his case, the writing of novels, is what makes reality bearable for him.
Here, the essay writer uses a long quotation from a secondary source to help give authority to the essay’s discussion of the character of St Quentin. The essay writer comments on what she considers is the most important point from the quotation and shows her reader how she interprets the quotation.
Most of the examples shown have used attribution to introduce either summary or quotation. To attribute means to name the author of the secondary source you are citing or quoting in your essay.
To Chessman, Portia’s diary “represents the characteristic
Bowenesque yearning for a language which is transparent” (134).
Attribution is an important concept and practice. Remember the idea that an essay is your offering to an ongoing academic conversation. Who says something is important, as well as what is said. You should not try to create the illusion that your essay has not benefited from others’ ideas when it has.
The clearest way to present your secondary source material is by attributing. If you always tell your reader who is saying what, it also becomes clearer when you, the essay writer, are speaking in your own voice making your own contribution. If you make a practise of attributing, it makes it that much more difficult to plagiarize by mistakenly presenting someone else’s ideas as your own.
Read over the quotation examples in the previous sections and note where and how attribution is done.
Attribution requires practice, but it is worth it. You will find it much easier to move between your sources’ ideas, your ideas, and the textual evidence and support of your primary text(s).
This section reviews how to quote accurately and applies to quotations from both primary (the literary work[s]) and secondary sources.
- Indicate a quotation by using quotation marks to open and close the borrowed passage or for quotations of four lines or longer, by indenting an extra five spaces.
- Ensure that your quotation corresponds exactly with the wording, spelling, and punctuation of the original; any changes that you make in the quotation must be indicated by using ellipsis dots (three spaced periods) or square brackets.
"The effect of the novel is to suggest that there is a
hopelessness in... [Leonard's] venture" (117).
The ellipsis dots show that words have been omitted from the
middle of the quoted sentence. The essay writer has inserted
"Leonard’s" into the quotation for it to make sense. The inserted
change is indicated by the square brackets.
- If you make an omission in quoted material between two sentences, type four periods for your ellipsis dots, not three.
"The effect of this is that Leonard's presence and speech cut
right across the novel.... One is reminded of the presence of
Caliban in The Tempest" (118).
Punctuation to Integrate Quotations
- If you work the quotation into the structure of your sentence, no added punctuation is necessary. You do not always need a comma before quotation marks.
According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary, the word "manifest"
means "clear, obvious, to the eye or mind" and, as a verb, it
means to "show plainly to the eye or mind."
- When you use attributory words, words that identify the writer of the quoted passage and a verb (eg. “Gertmenien writes,” “Pollak states,” “Paulson observes”), use commas to set off these words from the quotation, whether these words appear before, after, or between parts of the quotation.
Paulson writes, “Pope sets up the addressee and the poet,
Burlington and himself, as parallel figures” (116).
“Pope,” Paulson writes, “sets up the addressee and the poet,
Burlington and himself, as parallel figures” (116).
“Pope sets up the addressee and the poet, Burlington and
himself, as parallel figures,” Paulson writes (116).
- If you precede your quotation with an independent clause (a group of words that could stand as a complete sentence), use a colon to introduce the quotation. The independent clause should introduce the idea or the context of the quotation which follows it.
Margaret feels that Helen has made a caricature of the true
merging: “She had accomplished a hideous act of renunciation
and returned to the One” (Forster 275).
After Leonard’s death, it seems to Margaret that all meaning has
disintegrated against a backdrop of nothingness:
Events succeeded in a logical, yet senseless train. Here
Leonard lay dead in the garden,from natural causes; yet life
was a deep, deep river, death a blue sky, life was a house,
death was a wisp of hay, a flower, a tower, life and death
were anything and everything, except this ordered insanity.
- Periods or commas at the close of a quotation are placed before the quotation marks only when the quotation is not followed by material in parentheses. When there are parentheses, periods or commas come after them.
The poet's present virtue must arise from the poet's essential
difference from the object of his scorn: "the Race that write"
For longer, indented quotations, the parentheses are placed one
space after the end punctuation.
The reader is told that
Eddie lent himself, or appeared to lend himself, to Anna's
illusions about living. He did more: by his poetic
appreciation he created a small world of art round her.
The vanities of which she was too conscious, the
honesties to which she compelled herself, even the
secrets she had never told him existed inside a crystal
they both looked at, not only existed but were beautified.
For more on quoting see our Essay-Writing Guide, Thinking It Through.
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