Using Evidence in Academic Writing

One of the most essential skills an academic writer must possess is the ability to use material from primary and secondary sources.  This skill is so central to academic writing that students in my classes cannot earn anything higher than a D for research or analysis essays that do not appropriately quote from other sources.  Because I am upfront about this expectation two things happen without fail every semester – students ask me how many quotations they need to supply and students go forth and randomly select passages to quote with little or no thought about why they chose those passages, how they will graft those passages into their own writing, or what those passages are supposed to contribute to their essays.  This post is an attempt to address some of those issues.  Specifically, I will be discussing how to select material and how to incorporate that material into your own writing.  The question of how to find and evaluate material for use in an essay will be reserved for a later post.


The opening voice-over of the television show, Law & Order, with its division between “the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders” provides a valuable analogy for the task of an academic writer.  As writers, we embody that duality.  Before we write we investigate our topic to see if there is anything to be said.  Sometimes we find that there is nothing to our “case” and we close it and move on to another “case”, or we find that there may be something to our “case” but we lack sufficient evidence to move the “case” forward.  Other times, though, we find the raw evidence we are looking for, and then we transition into the second role of prosecuting our “case” by writing an argument-driven essay.  These two roles, investigatory and prosecutorial, are equally important and intertwined in most academic writing.

When writing on a topic in the humanities, the evidence that academic writers pursue is the words and ideas of other people.  Just as the evidence collected for a crime can be divided into different categories (material evidence, witness testimony, expert testimony, etcetera), so, too, can the evidence for an essay be divided into different categories.  The most useful way of identifying these categories is to label them as primary and secondary sources.

Primary sources include the items being studied, or items somehow connected to the item being studied.  For example, if I were writing an essay on Raphael’s painting, The School of Athens, the painting itself would be a primary source, but so, too, would any drawings that Raphael made as studies in preparation for painting The School of Athens.  Furthermore, any letters or journal entries that Raphael or his contemporaries wrote about the painting would also be considered primary sources.  Similarly, if I were writing an essay on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice I would consider the novel a primary source, but I would also consider any letters written by Austen to her sister, Cassandra, about the novel to also be primary sources.

Secondary sources, for the purpose of this post, are defined as texts (this may include written, televised or cinematic texts) that provide a scholarly discussion of primary sources.  For example, if I were writing an essay on J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in addition to reading Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and Tolkien’s letters, all of which would be primary sources, I would also want to read Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth, which is a scholarly examination of Lord of the Rings, and I would want to look through any relevant essays in the academic journal, Tolkien Studies:  An Annual Scholarly Review.

Primary sources, I should note, are vastly more important than secondary sources.  If we return to our court case analogy, we can consider primary sources to be the testimony of the individuals directly involved in the case, while the secondary sources can be considered expert testimony.  It is possible to write an essay relying solely on primary sources.  Indeed, in my literature courses I require student NOT to use secondary sources when writing their literary analysis essays because I want them to learn how to analyze literature without depending on the opinions of scholars (or, as is more frequently the case, the opinions of the creators of SparkNotes).

So, let me return to an earlier observation.  Frequently students ask how many quotations they need to have in their essays.  I think this mindset that there is a fixed number of quotations that I am looking for probably comes as a consequence of students growing accustomed to formulaic writing instruction and rubrics.  If quotations are evidence, though, then there can be no set number of quotations required.  A student asking me how much he or she needs to quote is like an attorney asking a judge how much evidence he or she needs to present.  The answer is the same in both instances – however much you need to prove your case.

I also mentioned that students frequently go looking for quotations to “satisfy” my requirement.  My concern, of course, is not that students have quotations, but rather that they select meaningful quotations and use them in a manner that progresses their arguments.  We’ll talk more about how to select valuable quotations momentarily, but for the moment I want to emphasize the notion of context and the chain of custodyCriminal investigators look for evidence that has not been tampered with or removed from the scene of the crime.  The reason for this is simple – if the evidence has not been disturbed, then its location provides a context for what happened that the investigators bloody knifecan interpret.  After all, an investigator will reach very different conclusions if he finds a bloody knife next to some uncooked steak in the kitchen instead of a bloody knife next to a body in the bedroom!  Similarly, good academic writers look for evidence in the primary sources they are investigating.

Frequently I have students who, having decided, for example, to write an essay on Pride and Prejudice, go to where they then look up things written or said by Jane Austen.  The typical reason for this sloppy approach to find quotations is because the student in question hasn’t read, or marked, his or her copy of Pride and Prejudice. Several problems, though, attend this approach to finding evidence.  First, the student does not have the quotation in its original context, and thus is unable to understand its relationship to the text as a whole.  Secondly, the chain of custody has been broken.  In a criminal investigation the chain of custody refers to the apparatus by which investigators log and track evidence to make sure that it is not lost or contaminated. Students who rely on AZquotes or other quotation sites have broken the chain of custody.  If they do not check the quotation in the original text, they have no way of knowing if the quotation has been altered or even exists.  I have, on occasion, gone online and found quotations attributed to one source that actually belongs to another source, or that has simply been invented by somebody online.  I also frequently find online quotations that have errors in them.  The only way to ensure that you have a chain of custody for your evidence is by going to the original document, recording it yourself, carefully, double checking that you accurately recorded it, and inserting it, properly cited into your own writing.     

So, having gone over the importance of quoting and some of the things to keep in mind as you are looking for evidence, I want to turn now to the six rules I give my students to help them select and use quotations:

Rule 1:  Only use quotations that are clearly relevant to the case you are building (i.e. they support your ideas, add to your ideas, or disagree with your ideas, and you want to respond to the argument they present).   Keep in mind that one of the smartest moves you can make is identifying and responding to information that seems to undercut your argument.  If your readers are familiar with the text you are analyzing, they may very well be familiar with any contradictory evidence, in which case ignoring any attempt to ignore that evidence will just make you look like a careless investigator.

While you do need to address any evidence that undermines your argument, you don’t necessarily need to use all of the evidence that supports your argument.  If you have two or three strong quotations that illustrate your point, then you don’t need to include the less useful quotations.  Being selective in what you use is important because typically you are going to have limited space in which to make your argument.  In a five page essay you will not be able to meaningfully discuss, for example, every reference to commerce and property in The Merchant of Venice, particularly if you intend for your essay to be more than just a patchwork of quotations.  Bear in mind, that while I do not tell students how many quotations to use in their writing, it is possible to have too many quotations.  The majority of the writing in your essay needs to be yours.  To return to our court case analogy, if you are an attorney you don’t want to muddy the minds of the jurors, or test the patience of the judge by presenting an endless supply of evidence that is not clearly integral to the case you’re building.

Rule 2:  Always embed quotations into your own writing.  Use your own words to provide, where possible, the source of the quotation, and to provide a context for the quotation.  Your own words should also indicate the quotation’s relationship to your own argument.  Let’s imagine that I’m writing an essay on the importance of social class in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I want to use evidence of that fact from this passage:

Elizabeth listened in silence, but was not convinced; their behaviour at the assembly had not been calculated to please in general; and with more quickness of observation and less pliancy of temper than her sister, and with a judgment too unassailed by any attention to herself, she was very little disposed to approve them. They were in fact very fine ladies; not deficient in good humour when they were pleased, nor in the power of being agreeable where they chose it; but proud and conceited. They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank; and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade. 

Mr. Bingley inherited property to the amount of nearly an hundred thousand pounds from his father, who had intended to purchase an estate, but did not live to do it.—Mr. Bingley intended it likewise, and sometimes made choice of his county; but as he was now provided with a good house and the liberty of a manor, it was doubtful to many of those who best knew the easiness of his temper, whether he might not spend the remainder of his days at Netherfield, and leave the next generation to purchase.

His sisters were very anxious for his having an estate of his own; but though he was now established only as a tenant, Miss Bingley was by no means unwilling to preside at his table, nor was Mrs. Hurst, who had married a man of more fashion than fortune, less disposed to consider his house as her home when it suited her. Mr. Bingley had not been of age two years, when he was tempted by an accidental recommendation to look at Netherfield House. He did look at it and into it for half an hour, was pleased with the situation and the principal rooms, satisfied with what the owner said in its praise, and took it immediately.

Obviously I’m not going to quote all three of these paragraphs in my essay.  Instead I want to focus on how Bingley’s sisters appear, at least on a subconscious level, to be anxious about losing the social status that their family has only recently acquired.  I might write this:

All of the characters in Pride and Prejudice are anxious about maintaining their social standing.  For Bingley’s sisters, the precarious nature of their family’s fortune is illustrated by the manner in which they repress their awareness that, “their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade” (Austen 12). 

Here I have taken control of the passage that I’m quoting by embedding it in my own words.  If I embed every quotation in my own writing, then it follows that a free standing quotation will never appear at the beginning of a paragraph.

Let’s return to our analogy.  In a trial it is never sufficient for the lawyer to simply plop a piece of evidence in front of a jury and say, “Here is a piece of evidence.”  Instead the lawyer needs to establish where the evidence came from and its relevance to the case, like this:  “If it please the court, we are going to introduce into evidence bullet fragments that were found embedded in Mr. Smith’s skull, and we are going to demonstrate that those fragments came from Mr. Johnson’s revolver.”  You need to do the same thing when you are introducing a piece of evidence to your reader.

Rule 3:  Always follow a quotation with relevant analysis of your own.  Following up on our example above, a good lawyer always interprets the evidence for the jury.  A prosecutor might say, having introduced bullet fragments and the testimony of a ballistics expert into evidence, “Our ballistics expert has conclusively shown that the fragments found at the crime came from Mr. Johnson’s revolver, and we know that Mr. Johnson had spoken of getting revenge on Mr. Smith, and that he was seen leaving Mr. Smith’s neighborhood fifteen minutes after Mr. Smith died.  There can be no doubt that Mr. Johnson planned to murder Mr. Smith and carried out the attack that ended Mr. Smith’s life.”

Likewise, you need to provide an interpretation of whatever evidence you introduce to the reader.  Here’s an example of this might be done using what I’ve already written about from Pride and Prejudice.

All of the characters in Pride and Prejudice are anxious about maintaining their social standing.  For Bingley’s sisters, the precarious nature of their family’s fortune is illustrated by the manner in which they repress their awareness that, “their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade” (Austen 12).  Their resentment of the Bennet family appears to stem, at least partially, from the unacknowledged fact that the Bennet family and the Bingley family are alike in that the wealth of each family can be traced to roots in the less respectable world of commerce and business.  One method for ensuring the respectability of one’s family in Regency England is by separating one’s family from commerce through the acquisition of a familial estate, which is why the Bingley sisters are “very anxious for [their brother] having an estate of his own” (12).  The apparently rising status of the Bingley family stands in sharp contrast to the declining status of the Bennet family; the Bingleys speak of procuring a familial estate while the Bennets worry about the impending loss of their estate to Mr. Collins.

In this rather poorly written example I have introduced evidence from the novel in my own words, and I have followed that evidence with my interpretation.

Rule 4:  Always cite each quotation in text.  Citations must follow the format established by the MLA.  In other words, you should include the last name of the author, or, if that is not available, a shortened version of the title of the piece as well as the page number.  Punctuation always follows the citation.  For example:  “North Korea poses no great threat” (Johnson 12).  When you are using a quotation from a source that appears in somebody else’s writing, indicate both sources like this:

According to President Harken, “Negotiations with North Korea are valuable” (qtd. in Johnson 14).

In the example above we know that (the fictional) President Harken is the speaker, but that the quotation itself can be found in the (fictional) source written by Johnson.

It is important for writers to cite sources for the same reason that it is important for criminal investigators to meticulously capture the location of each piece of evidence that they have found – in both instances subsequent investigators may want to go back and look at the original material.

Rule 5:  Modify the quotations you are using so that they fit seamlessly into your own writing.  The most important thing to keep in mind when modifying a quotation is to NOT modify the quotation so much that the original meaning of the passage is distorted or lost.    When you are changing a quotation by inserting words or by leaving out words, indicate the changes you have made by ellipses (three dots) or by square brackets [like these].  The ellipses indicate that something has been cut from the original passage.  Ellipses do not need to be used at the beginning or end of a quotation, even when the quotation begins mid sentence or ends mid sentence.  The square brackets indicate that you have inserted something or changed something in the original to help clarify the meaning of the statement or to merge the statement into your own writing.  For example:

Readers who imagine that Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is primarily a love story have overlooked the fact that the important ingredient in Austen’s ironic “universal truth” is not single men, but rather single men who happen to be “in possession of a fortune” (1).  Mrs. Bennet, who embraces Austen’s “universal truth”, clearly values wealth and social status over other concerns.  Consequently, when Mrs. Bennet learns that Elizabeth is to marry Darcy, a man for whom Mrs. Bennet had expressed a particularly loathing, she seamlessly transitions to enthusiastic support for the nuptials:

Good gracious! Lord bless me! only think! dear me! Mr. Darcy! […] Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! […] I am so pleased—so happy. Such a charming man!—so handsome! so tall!—Oh, my dear Lizzy! pray apologise for my having disliked him so much before. I hope he will overlook it. Dear, dear Lizzy. A house in town! Every thing that is charming! […] Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! (331-332)

The fact that it is Darcy’s wealth, and not any newly discovered liking for Darcy himself that sways Mrs. Bennet is evident in how Mrs. Bennet takes account of the newly obtained wealth first – “What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages” – and the attributes of her future son-in-law second – “Such a charming man!—so handsome! so tall!” (331-332).  So central is wealth to Mrs. Bennet’s conception of a successful marriage that after the most superficial enumeration of Darcy’s qualities Mrs. Bennet returns to raptures over Darcy’s fortune.  Mrs. Bennet could care less that Darcy is “charming… handsome… [and] tall” as long as he can provide a “house in town” and “[t]en thousand a year” (332).

So, now that you’ve waded through everything I just wrote, note that I used the ellipses to mark sections where I had removed content from the material being quoted.  In this case I used square brackets around my ellipses to highlight the fact that the ellipses were not part of the original pass.  I also used square brackets to indicate that I had introduced a word into a quotation and that I had changed a letter from upper-case to lower-case.

Rule 6:  Normally you should use short quotations surrounded by your own analysis.  Occasionally, however, you may need to quote longer passages of text in which case you may need to use block formatting. Quotations longer than four lines must be block formatted.  Block formatting is set off from the rest of the text by indenting it one inch from the left margin.  It does not have quotation marks, unless there is a quotation within the quotation, and the citation is placed outside of the punctuation.  The block formatted quote must be double spaced.  Here is an example:

In The Sword in the Stone, T. H. White provides an amusing, but accurate, description of combat in the Late Middle Ages:

To be able to picture the terrible battle which now took place, there is one thing which ought to be known.  A knight in his full armour of those days, or at any rate during the heaviest days of armour, was generally carrying as much or more than his own weight in metal.  […] This meant that his horse had to be a slow and enormous weight-carrier, like the farm horse of today and that his movements were so hampered by his burden of iron and padding that they were toned down into slow motion, as in the cinema.  (65-66)

This image of knights charging in slow motion makes the serious battle being described sound ridiculous and thus illustrates T. H. White’s own belief that all warfare is foolish.

Here ends the instruction on how to introduce evidence into your own writing.  This is by no means a comprehensive explanation of how to handle quotations, but it does cover the basics.  For more information I would recommend visiting Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.

Author: mdamey

I am an English professor with expertise in medieval and modern retellings of the stories of King Arthur. I have taught high school, college, and university courses over a a range of topics including Utopian and Dystopian fiction, Harry Potter, Science Fiction and Fantasy literature.

3 thoughts on “Using Evidence in Academic Writing”

  1. Greetings I am so delighted I found your site, I really found you by accident, while I was browsing on Aol for something else, Regardless I am here now and would just like to say kudos for a incredible post and a all round entertaining blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to look over it all at the minute but I have bookmarked it and also included your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read more, Please do keep up the fantastic jo.|

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to financial tips Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: