Using Primary Sources

There are three general ways to incorporate primary sources into your own writing:

  • Quotations: must be identical to the original text (they should be word for word, punctuation for punctuation mark identical; or, if you make any minor changes, these must be indicated by use of [brackets]), use a small part of the source, and attributed to the original author.  Depending on length, quotations can be identified by quotation marks or by being set off from the rest of the paper in block-quotation format.
  • Paraphrase: involves putting a passage of someone else’s writing into your own words. A paraphrase must also be attributed to the original source—this means you must CITE paraphrases. It may be interspersed with very short quotations of words or phrases.
  • Summary: involves putting the main idea(s) of a larger chunk of text into your own words. Once again, it is necessary to attribute summarized ideas to the original source. Summaries are significantly shorter than the original and take a broad overview of the source material.

Generally, the best rule is to quote the bits that are memorable or need careful attention to understand properly; paraphrase the ideas that are factual; and summarize the ideas that are too big to include by means of quotation and paraphrase.  Writers frequently intertwine summaries, paraphrases, and quotations. As part of a summary of an article, a writer might include paraphrases of various key points blended with quotations of striking or suggestive phrases.

Summary: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Summary is an important skill, and you’ve probably been practicing it regularly throughout your lives–when you watched a movie and described it to friends, when you read a book and wrote a report on it, etc. That said, summary is a building block for larger skills, and in academic writing you must go beyond simply describing or restating texts and move into complex analysis. Summary can be helpful, but on its own can do more harm than good.

Summary of primary sources (such as the novel or poem you are writing about) should generally only be used to provide background or to set the stage, especially when you need to give context for an important quotation or bit of paraphrase. For the most part, a few sentences of summary is enough; more than that may bog your paper down.  For the purposes of this class, you should assume that your readers know the primary text you are writing about, but also that they may not have looked at it recently. Your job is to simply jog their memory of what happened with only those details that are important to your point.

Please note that there are at least two exceptions to the rule that you shouldn’t summarize very much: 1) You may need more substantial summary if you are writing for an audience unfamiliar with your primary sources–for example, if you are writing about a novel, film, or poem that was not covered in class.  2)  You generally cannot assume your readers have read your secondary or supporting sources, and you may need to use more extensive summary in order to bring your audience up to speed.

How do I know if my use of summary is appropriate?  If you are only stating something that would be obvious to another reader or viewer (that an event happens, that a character exists, etc.) without going on to explain how and why what you are saying is important, then the summary isn’t appropriate.  If, however, you use that information to build to your own, original argument, or go on to explain why that fact is significant, then you’re on the right track.


Paraphrase, like summary, involves putting someone else’s ideas into your own words.  However, paraphrase tends to be local (concerned with a very specific moment in a text) as opposed to global (the idea of an entire passage or text).  Generally speaking, paraphrase allows you to maintain the specific idea, but put your own spin on it and use it more directly in service of your own ideas and argument.  You willprobably want to use some of the words from the original text, but these should be in quotation marks.  And–despite what you may think–you should ALWAYS cite a paraphrased idea; give page numbers for each idea you are citing.

Here are the most basic steps to effectively include paraphrase in your papers:

  1. Identify the important information
  2. Identify the language that is memorable instead of just factual, or that will be necessary to take directly from the author; these will be used as quotations.
  3. Put in your own words what you think the author is trying to communicate.
  4. Don’t try and fit everything from the original in.
  5. Include your own analysis in the paraphrase.

Here’s an example of a quotation and how one group of students ended up paraphrasing it and including bits of quotation and analysis for an in-class exercise:

Science Fiction is speculative fiction in which the author takes as his first postulate the real world as we know it, including all established facts and natural laws. The result can be extremely fantastic in content, but it is not fantasy; it is legitimate–and often very tightly reasoned–speculation about the possibilities of the real world. This category excludes rocket ships that make U-turns, serpent men of Neptune that lust after human maidens, and stories by authors who flunked their Boy Scout merit badge tests in descriptive astronomy. (From Robert Heinlein, “Ray Guns and Spaceships,” Expanded Universe. New York: Ace, 1981.  374)

According to Robert Heinlein, science fiction is “fantastic . . . but not fantasy” (374). Science fiction deals with the “real world”; it is rational and incorporates scientific ideas, without ignoring the rules governing how things work. Ultimately, science fiction examines the extreme possibilities of the world as we know it, and simply writing about aliens, advanced weapons, and spaceships is not enough. As Heinlein put it, science fiction “excludes rocket ships that make U-turns, serpent men of Neptune that lust after human maidens, and stories by authors who flunked their Boy Scout merit badge tests in descriptive astronomy.” Heinlein’s examples highlight the necessity that science fiction express an intrinsic knowledge of the rules by which our universe works, and the willingness to work within those boundaries.


As I said earlier, when it concerns your primary text, you should (usually) assume that your reader has read the text at some point.  Thus, when you refer to a scene from a narrative (that is, a story, whether that story is told in poetry or prose, whether fiction or non-fiction), while it’s essential that you cite the appropriate page numbers after your quotation, it’s not as useful to introduce the scene in this fashion:  “On page 64, we see,” or “in chapters 4 and 5, we find…”  While your audience has probably read the page and chapters, it’s not at all certain whether they will remember that page offhand.  Can YOU recall what happens on page 64 of the last book you read?  Instead,  resurrect those memories in your reader’s mind by describing the scene a bit, giving the context of your quotation.  You don’t have to take long about it; you might only need a phrase.  Your goal, however, is to help the reader say, “Oh yes, I know the bit you’re talking about,” so that you can move along and make your point.  Lay out your evidence in such a way that the reader never has to pick up his text unless he wants to double-check your point for himself. In short, follow this paradigm:

  1. Give context for the quotation,
  2. Segue into your quotation,
  3. Provide the citation,
  4. Move into analysis, drawing the reader’s attention to the elements in the quotation that support your thesis.

Be careful in your selection of what you quote: you need to be sure to properly represent what the author meant with his or her words.

Take a look at some examples.  I’ve bolded context/summary, italicized analysis, and underlined the portions that connect to the thesis:

When Elizabeth’s sister Jane becomes ill while visiting Mr. Bingley’s sisters at Netherfield, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst make comments that imply that theBennets’ connections in society are far below their own. For example, Miss Bingley states, “I have an excessive regard for Jane Bennet, she really is a very sweet girl, and I wish with all my heart she were well settled.  But with such a father and mother, and such low connections, I am afraid there is no chance of it” (25). According to the two women, based strictly on these family relations, regardless of the good qualities that Jane possesses, Jane’s chances of achieving a good marriage are slim. If Mr. Bingley’s sisters represent society’s thoughts on the role of extended family, then it may be believed that Jane, Elizabeth, and the rest of the Bennet girls are undesirable mates.  The irony in this situation, of course, is that the Bingley fortune was originally gained in trade, and thus they possess the same “low” relations (11).  Thus, even from the very beginning of the novel, Austen creates a situation where judgments concerning social class are often hypocritical, or at least somewhat myopic.

This example starts with general contextualization or summary, including the major characters involved in the scene, and then moves to a general statement about the point of the quotation.  After giving the quotation and citation, it analyzes and expands on the quotation, connecting it with earlier material and information, and eventually back to the thesis—that judgments concerning social class are often hypocritical in the novel.  The second example functions similarly:

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain protects Arthur from intimate involvement in a personal battle or challenge.  Arthur and his entire court is challenged by the Green Knight, and because no one else is willing to take on the challenge, Arthur prepares to do so himself.  However, before he can strike the Green Knight, Gawain rises and says that he must fight instead:

“For, truth to tell, it does not appear proper to me
That a demand like this, delivered with such disdain,
Should be dealt with–whether you wish or no–directly,
By you alone.”  (Harrison 14-15)

Following this speech, Arthur immediately capitulates to Gawain’s request.  Gawain frames his request in terms of propriety: what is appropriate and correct in the given situation.  If Arthur ignored Gawain, his behavior would endanger his kingship not only because of the danger to his life, but because of the danger to the concept of correct behavior and chivalry on which Arthur has centered his reign. In fact, this issue of proper behavior may be the motivating factor in Arthur’s original acceptance of the challenge:  with no one else to take on the Green Knight, it fell to Arthur as a last resort to protect the honor of his court.  Only when there exists someone else who is ready and able to represent Arthur and his court could Arthur refuse to respond to the challenge.

This example actually gives context/summary on both sides of the quotation before moving into analysis of the entire situation.  It focuses on the specific language of the quotation in order to expand the ideas present: the author’s ideas about what is proper, what actions should be taken by various individuals, is expanded into a discussion of propriety and the nature of Arthur’s kingship.  Please notice the summary to analysis ratio: there is more than twice as much analysis as there is summary.

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