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How to Use Reference Material in Your Writing

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Instructor: Doresa Jennings

Doresa holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies.

Reference materials often are a necessary tool to create effective writing. Learn how to incorporate appropriate reference material into your writing and still make it your own work. Explore the steps for using reference materials, which include consult experts, broaden and then narrow your research, use your newfound knowledge, and make it your own work. Updated: 08/22/2021

How to Use Reference Material in Your Writing

Imagine yourself to be an aspiring pastry chef. To make your mark in the world of sweets, you have decided to make the best chocolate chip cookie the world has ever seen. Your work will be the envy of chefs the world over, while people of all walks of life try to follow your words to cookie bliss!

The cookie walk parallels the journey we make when writing an essay or other work. We want to create something amazing, and often the only way to do that is to build on the work of those that have done great things before us.

While we are allowed to give our opinion in writing and to posit ideas and beliefs, we are expected to have an educated opinion. This happens when we ground our opinion in good information we gleaned from research and using those reference materials in our own writing.

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  • 0:07 Using Reference Material
  • 0:58 Consult Experts
  • 2:50 Go Broad, Then Narrow
  • 4:25 Using our Newfound Knowledge
  • 5:30 Make It Our Own
  • 6:32 Lesson Summary
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Step One: Consult Experts

Of course, the first step is to know exactly what a good chocolate chip cookie is like. There has to be some way to judge your creation the best on the planet! So you do a search to find what makes a chocolate chip cookie great.

This is also the first step in using reference materials in your writing. You want to make sure you are going to be utilizing universally accepted concepts for your topic. While our chef might be relying upon the work of Julia Child to define what makes a cookie great, you should be consulting those considered the experts in your topic for words to describe the parameters of your topic.

Of course, we have to know where to look for these sources. To find sources, you can start with an Internet search, like Google Scholar, as well as visiting your library, reading books on the subject, and even consulting with individuals that work in the field. One of the highest levels of source materials you can use in academic writing is articles found in peer reviewed scholarly journals.

Another important step is to try to find primary sources. Primary sources are first-hand accounts of events. They are original research, thinking, or discovery on a topic or event, and are written or created by people who actually experienced the event. Correspondence, diaries, manuscripts, sketchbooks, creative works, employee records, and original scholarship or research records are all examples of primary sources. Secondary sources, on the other hand, analyze, synthesize, and interpret primary sources. Examples of secondary sources include textbooks, articles, and encyclopedias. Sometimes, the boundary between primary and secondary sources can be blurry. For instance, a scholarly article is often treated as a secondary source, but it can also present original research, which makes it a primary source. It is always best to use a primary source when available. This ensures you are accurately quoting the original author's work. The only way to know if the original author was quoted accurately or in context is to view it for yourself.

Step Two: Broad, Then Narrow

Looking back at our baking journey, while we now understand what makes a cookie great, now we have to figure out how to bake any cookie well. There is really no need to reinvent the wheel here. We should be digging through a wide variety of cookbooks that will give us tips and hints on baking a perfect cookie regardless of the ingredients.

This is also the next step in our process. Once we have used an expert to define the parameters of our topic, we want to cast a wide net for resources to get broad information for our narrowed topic.

To find an expert in your field, do an Internet search of your topic. One of the best places to look is in peer reviewed scholarly journals that focus exclusively on your topic. Other periodicals and even organizations that have your topic as their foci are also great places to look.

Once we quote our expert to get an accurate definition and basic set of facts we want to work from, we use that information to search for others that have also contributed to the field. There are times when your instructor will tell you how many sources you need to utilize in your writing. If no such requirement is given, a good rule of thumb is a minimum of two sources for facts and figures and three sources for more general information.

You might also use multiple sources that disagree with one another. For instance, one cookie baker may swear by aluminum foil to stop cookies from sticking, while another vouches for parchment paper. Acknowledging disagreement can actually bring more trust to your own writing.

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