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Academic Writing

Using Secondary Sources

What Are Primary and Secondary Sources?

A primary source is a source that you are analyzing as the writer. In other words, there is no mediary between you and the text; you are the one doing the analysis.

Some examples of primary sources:

      - the novel Frankenstein (which you are analyzing for an essay on motherhood in
        Frankenstein )
      - an interview with President Obama (which you are analyzing for an essay on Obama's
        communication patterns)
      - a forum on Doctor Who fan fiction (which you are analyzing for an essay on the rising
        popularity of fan fiction)

A secondary source, then, is a source that has also done analysis of the same (or a similar) topic. You will then use this source to discuss how it relates to your argument about the primary source. A secondary source is a mediary between you and the primary source. Secondary sources can also help your credibility as a writer; when you use them in your writing, it shows that you have done research on the topic, and can enter into the conversation on the topic with other writers.

Some examples of secondary sources:

      - a journal article on motherhood in the novel Frankenstein, which you then use to
        discuss Shelley's beliefs on motherhood, and how they may have worked their way
        into her novel
      - a book on speech patterns, which you use to help show how Obama communicates
        with both the interviewer and the audience
      - a book on fan fiction, which you use to discuss fan fiction as a collaborative process

Summary: When and How Do I Use It?


 One of the important distinctions to make when coming to terms with a text is knowing when to summarize it, when to paraphrase it, and when to quote it. Here’s what Joseph Harris, author of the textbook Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts,  has to say:

  “Summarize when what you have to say about a text is routine and quote when it is more contentious” (21).

In other words, quote when you need to rely on the voice of the writer, when you need the language of the text to help you make a point. Otherwise, try to use paraphrase or summary, so that your ideas are still the main focus.

 Summarizing a text can distract your reader from your argument, especially if you rely on lengthy summaries to capture a source in a nutshell. However, it can also prove an effective rhetorical tool: you just need to know when to use it.

You can use summary in the following ways: 

        - When the source offers important background about your ideas

       - When you need to provide your readers with an overview of a source’s entire argument before analyzing certain ideas from it

       - When the source either supports your thesis, or when it offers a position you want to argue against or analyze more in-depth

Here is a sample summary. What do you notice about it?

Ryuko Kubota argues in “Ideologies of English in Japan” that the debate over English’s place in the Japanese language disappeared with the militaristic rule of the 1930s and 1940s, when Japan rejected and/or suppressed the learning of English and other languages in favor of heavy nationalism. However, he adds that the debate returned during America’s occupation of Japan and has periodically been a topic for debate since.  Japanese politicians have always seen English as an important tool for Japan’s success as an industrial nation on a global scale. However, instead of molding itself to the English of the Western world, Japan has integrated English to fit its ideologies, to serve its own needs; indeed, to become part of the Japanese language.

1. This is a succinct summary; the entire summary is only three sentences.

2. The final sentence of the paragraph is the writer's attempt to make a connection between the article and her own ideas for her paper. This is an important step in using summary; it's important to always show the reader how/why the summary is important/relevant.

Paraphrasing: When/How/Why Should I Do It?

Paraphrasing gives you the room to condense a text’s ideas into your own words.  You can use this, for example, to rewrite a definition, to emphasize important points, or to clarify ideas that might be hard for the reader to understand if you quote the original text.

When you paraphrase, remember that you still need to cite the source in-text!

Depending on your field and the style guide your field follows, you may be required to paraphrase more than quote or summarize. Make sure you are familiar with the writing conventions for your field. APA, for example, draws much more on paraphrase than MLA.

Example of a Paraphrase

Let’s look at an example of a paraphrase.  Note that here the author of this paraphrase has used the author’s name first as an attributive tag – she is letting the reader know who wrote this.  She then goes on to put the writer’s ideas into her own words, but acknowledges directly where the ideas came from by using the in-text citation at the end of the second sentence.

Paraphrase: Original Text from "On Japan's Propensity for Native Speakers of English," by Nobuyuki Honna
[Japanese people] are ashamed if they do not speak English the way native speakers do.  Given an Anglophile goal as their guiding light, Japanese students of English…accept their limited proficiency as natural and inevitable…By virtue of this perfectionism, Japanese tend to hesitate to interact with English speakers ‘until,’ as they often are heard to say, ‘they develop complete proficiency in the language’. Fears of making mistakes often prevent them from using the phrases and expressions they are learning currently (Honna 58).
Paraphrased Text:
According to Nobuyuki Honna, many Japanese believe they must speak English perfectly to be proficient.  The problem that arises with the idea of “mastering” English is that generations of Japanese students are growing up not believing they have developed a proficiency in the language such that they can communicate with a native English speaker (58).
In the above example, notice the following:
1. The author managed to encapsulate the longer passage into two sentences.
2. The paraphrase has an attirbutive tag ("According to Nobuyuki Honna") and a citation at the end of the sentence.

    - This is a paraphrase for MLA; in APA, the year would come after Honna's name in parentheses.


In source-based or synthesis writing, we try to not only express our ideas using our own voice, but to also express our ideas through the voices of those we are citing. In their book Wriiting Analytically, Rosenwasser and Stephen offer six strategies to use in researched writing to make our sources speak, to make them come alive.

Here are some typical problems we encounter when using primary and secondary sources:

     - Leaving quotations and paraphrases to speak for themselves

     - Not differentiating your own voice from the voices of your sources (ventriloquizing)

     - Resorting to overly agreeing and disagreeing as your only means of responding to a source (other than summary)

Primary and secondary sources are nothing to fear. Many times we either leave sources to speak for themselves or ignore them altogether because we are afraid of losing our own voices. These strategies, listed below, are designed to help us know when and how to use quotes, and how not to become lost in the process.


Strategy 1: Make Your Sources Speak

v Quote, paraphrase, or summarize in order to analyze, as opposed to in place of analyzing.  Don’t assume that the meaning of your source material is self-evident.  Instead, explain to your readers what the quote, paraphrase, or summary means.  For example, what aspects do you find interesting or strange?  And relate these aspects to your overall thesis.   Your focus here in analysis should be on how the source leads you to your conclusion – beware of generalizing or putting two quotes next to each other without explaining the connection.

Using Strategy #1: How are you using your sources?  Are you taking the time to develop points from your sources, or are you just using evidence – and is it clear why you are using it?  Highlight/bracket analysis, mark in a different color where analysis is not present immediately following source.  


Strategy 2: Use Your Sources to Ask Questions, Not Just to Provide Answers


v Use your selections from your sources as a means to raise issues and questions; avoid the temptation to use selections that provide answers without any commentary or further elaboration.  If you feel stuck with this, consider the source alongside other contexts (other sources, for example) and compare and contrast them to see if there are aspects of your topic that your source does not adequately address.

Using Strategy #2: Again, ask: how are you using your sources as question generators?  What how/why questions do your sources generate?  Look over the evidence you’ve used, and jot down the how/why questions you think your evidence creates.  Next, go through your paper.  Do you see yourself addressing these questions?  Mark your analysis appropriately so you can see how you’re addressing these questions (or not).  


Strategy 3: Put Your Sources in Conversation with One Another


v This is an extension of strategy 2.  Rather than limiting yourself to the only conversationalist with each source, aim for conversation among them.  Although it is not wrong to agree or disagree with your sources, it is wrong to see these as your only possible moves.  You should also understand that although it is sometimes useful and perhaps even necessary to agree or disagree, these judgments should 1) always be qualified and 2) occur only in certain contexts.  Instead of looking just at how you agree or disagree, try to imagine what these critics might say to one another.  Looking at sources in this way may prove useful as you explore your topics further in depth.

Using Strategy #3:

    This is a way for your sources to address one another directly, while also giving you more room to expand on your ideas through a slightly different form of analysis.  For example: what might the person you interviewed think about the secondary sources you found?  Would they agree with the claims you see your sources making, or would they disagree?  Why – what about their interview suggests this?  Make a list of possible dialogues your sources could have with one another.  


Strategy 4: Find Your Own Role in the Conversation

v Even though it’s important to not be the only person in the essay agreeing and disagreeing with the texts, it is important that you establish what you think and feel about each source.  After all, something compelled you to choose it, right?  In general, you have two options when you are in agreement with a source.  You can apply it in another context to qualify or expand its implications, or you can seek out other perspectives in order to break the hold it has on you.  In the first option, to do this, instead of focusing on the most important point, choose a lesser yet equally interesting point and work on developing that idea to see if it holds relevance to your topic.  The second option can also hold new perspectives if you allow yourself to be open to the possibilities of other perspectives that may or may not agree with your original source.

Using Strategy #4: While it’s important that you create a distinct voice for all the different kinds of sources you’ve used (interview, fieldwork, scholarly journals/books, etc.), it’s perhaps even more important that you have a clear role in this conversation that is your research essay.  Look over your paper: is it clear what you think?  Is it clear what is your voice, and what are the ideas/opinions of your sources? (Hint: your voice should still be clear in the midst of your sources, if you are taking the time to analyze them and develop your analysis as fully as possible.)  Highlight places where you voice – what you think – is clear.  Highlight in a different color places where your voice is unclear, or needs to be expressed more fully.


Strategy 5: Supply Ongoing Analysis of Sources (Don’t Wait Until the End)

v Instead of summarizing everything first and then leaving your analysis until the end, analyze as you quote or paraphrase a source.  This will help yield good conversation, by integrating your analysis of your sources into your presentation of them.

Using Strategy #5:

Are your sources presented throughout the paper with careful analysis attending to each one?  Or are you presenting all your sources first, and analyzing them later?  Look through your paper, and mark places where you see yourself not analyzing your sources as you go.  Also: are there places where you see too much analysis, and not enough evidence?  Be sure to mark those places as well.  



Strategy 6: Attend Carefully to the Language of Your Sources by Quoting or Paraphrasing Them

v Rather than generalizing broadly about the ideas in your sources, you should spell out what you think is significant about their key words.  Quote sources if the actual language they use is important to your point; this practice will help you to present the view of your source fairly and accurately.  Your analysis will also benefit from the way the source represents its position (which may or may not be your position) with carefully chosen words and phrases.  Take advantage of this, and use the exact language to discuss the relevance (or not) of the quote to the issue you’re using it for.

Using Strategy #6: When paraphrasing or quoting a source, it’s important that you use the language of the source to help explain it – it keeps the reader in the moment with you, and helps him/her understand the key terms of that source – why you chose, why these words are so important, etc.  Look over your evidence, both quoted and paraphrased: are you using the language of the quote to help explain it?  Or is your analysis removed from the “moment of the source” (i.e. the language which the source uses to illustrate its point)?  Mark places where you think it’s important to use the language of the source to help analyze and develop the evidence more completely.  


Strategies for Using Quotations In-Text


Acknowledge sources in your text, not just in citations:  

      “According to Lewis” or “Whitney argues.”


Use a set-up phrase, and splice the most important part of quotations in with your own words:

     According to Paul McCartney, “All you need is love.”


 Or phrase it with a set-up:

     Patrick Henry’s famous phrase is one of the first American schoolchildren memorize:

     “Give me liberty, or give me death.”


Anytime you use a quote, cite your source after the quotation:  

     Maxine Greene might attribute this resistance to “vaguely perceived expectations; they

     allow themselves to be programmed by organizations and official schedules or forms” (43).


Use ellipses to shorten quotations:

      “The album ‘OK Computer’ …pictured the onslaught of the information age and a young

        person’s panicky embrace of it” (Ross 85).


Use square brackets to alter or add information within a quotation:  

      Popular music has always “[challenged] the mores of the older generation,” according to

      Nick Hornby.

According to Janet Gardner in her book Writing About Literature, there are three ways that we tend to use quotes:

    - Floating quotations
    - Attributed quotations
     - Integrated quotations


Gardner advocates that we stay away from “floating quotations,” use at least an “attributed quotation,” and use “integrated quotations” as much as possible.

You will recognize a floating quotation when it looks as though the writer has simply lifted the passage from the original text, put quotations around it, and (maybe) identified the source.

Doing this can create confusion for the reader, who is left to guess the context and the reason for the quote.

This type of quoting reads awkward and choppy because there is no transition between your words and the language of the text you are quoting.


Example of a Floating Quotation; text taken from All She was Worth, by Miyuki Miyabe   

 Both Honma and Kyoko were rejected and looked down upon by Jun and Chizuko’s family when entering into marriage with their respective partners. “About her cousin – Jun’s father – and his family: what snobs they were, with fixed ideas on education and jobs” (Miyabe 17).This passage shows that Honma and Kyoko were both being judged by their future in-laws by superficial stipulations.


Attributed Quotations

 Try to use at least an attributed quotation. This means that you name the source – or provide some context – within the sentence containing the quotation. This usually takes the shape of a lead in phrase.
 Doing this allows the reader to immediately know who originally wrote or said the quoted material. It also allows her to know (or expect) that your commentary will follow.
 It also provides a smoother transition between your ideas and your quoted material.
Example of Attributed Quotation, using Miyuki Miyabe's novel All She was Worth: 
Tamotsu would never have agreed to help Honma find Shoko without his wife’s permission, no matter how much he desired to do so. Ikumi says to Honma, “Of course I mind [him going]! I mind like crazy…But I’d hate even more to have him sitting at home thinking about Shoko…he loved her” (Miyabe 166). Ikumi, a traditional, maternal, feminine character lets Tamotsu go not just because it's what he wants, but because, in a way, it's wht she wants as well.


Integrated Quotations


Always try to use an integrated quotation. To do this, you make a cited passage part of your own sentence.
 This is difficult to do, because you have to make the quoted material fit grammatically with your own sentence. However, the payoff in clarity and sharpness of prose is worth the extra time spent with sentence revision.
 Using integrated quotations also means that you are relying on the voice of the text less, and your own voice more. Your voice will drive the essay more fluidly.
Example of an Integrated Quotation, using Miyabe's All She was Worth: 
 Women are the only ones who can change family registers; when they get married they are “removed from [their] parents’ family register and put in a new one with the husband as the head" (Miyabe 62). This fact shows that a woman's identify can be shifted around, but she will never be subordinate to a man.