Working with Sources

It is a challenging task to integrate critical sources into your argument and into your prose.   These tips should help:

1.  Signal Phrases

Critical sources must be introduced with signal phrases;  do NOT simply drop a quotation into your argument with no acknowledgement about where it’s from.

Wrong way:  Ashpet offers an intriguing use of the storyteller. Marina Warner claims that a storyteller “may be offering herself as a surrogate to the vanished mother in the story” (215).

*Here, the author has merely dropped the critic Warner into the essay.  Avoid doing this.

Correct way:  In From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner has suggested that “the old wife of the old wives’ tale . . . may be offering herself as a surrogate to the vanished mother in the story” (215).  We see this function of the storyteller clearly with Louise Anderson’s Sally in Ashpet: both the framing storyteller and a character in the film, Sally unifies the tale and provides Lily with both the maternal care and the happy ending she desires.

*Here, the author has carefully introduced the critic and the quotation.  Once you’ve introduced your source, subsequent quotations from the same source do not need to include the work’s title or the author’s full name in the signal phrase:  e.g. :Warner also reminds us that godmothers can be literal mother substitutes; thus the narrator serves simultaneously as mother and fairy godmother (215).


2.  Incorporating your source into your argument

            There are two basic ways to use critical sources.

  • You may use a critical source to offer definitions or to clarify a phenomenon you’re describing in your essay.  The example above uses a source in this way.
  •  It’s almost always more interesting, however, if you can show how your argument will extend or change or disagree with or refine what previous critics have shown.

Here are two examples:

While Rowe makes a powerful argument about the misogynist elements of fairy tales, she fails to consider the importance of women in actually telling the stories, a significant source of power.


While Rowe makes a powerful argument about the misogynist elements of fairy tales, her argument could be extended even further by analyzing the ways in which class is also a subordinate term in most fairy tales.

*You’ll need, of course, to summarize the key elements of the source’s argument in order for you to disagree/revise, etc. that source.

3.     Stay honest to your source

It is important not to misrepresent a source in your paper.  You should avoid taking a small part of someone else’s argument and suggesting that this argument represents the author’s entire point.  Likewise, if a source offers a point that would serve as a powerful rebuttal to one of your points, you’ll need to explain to your reader why this rebuttal is not valid.

It’s always a good idea to keep in mind how you might like to be treated by another critic.  You would want your ideas to be fairly represented, even if someone disagreed with them.



(Revised and adapted from materials developed by Elizabeth Outka)



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