Using Secondary Sources in an English Essay
- The English essay as research essay
- Using secondary sources
While much of what you will write in an English essay is based on your own analysis of a text, there is certainly a place for research and the use of secondary sources in an English essay. Research helps you to define or explain
- word meanings
- literary allusions
- cultural, political, religious and historical background
- authors’ biographies
- literary critics’ interpretations
These explanations can all be helpful in relating a literary work to broader contexts, in explaining who mythical characters are, in understanding the influence and effect of a work on readers and other writers, and so on.
As soon as you use your first secondary source, you are venturing into research. Research essays are based on information and opinion that you find and read; however, this information and opinion need to be synthesized and assimilated by you, so you can express, in turn, what you know and think about the subject.
Some literary secondary sources provide background information on literary texts, such as a text’s reception by critics on its publication, or events in the author’s life that may have influenced the text, and so on. However, you may find that you turn to secondary sources more for critics’ interpretations of the texts you are writing about than for background information.
- Many instructors provide lists, sometimes in their course outlines, of good secondary sources. Your texts, as well, may have forewords, afterwords, introductions, glossaries, background information, and further reading lists. Get to know your texts well.
- Critical, edited editions of a literary work usually provide a wealth of references to secondary sources in the form of "further reading" lists.
- Use the library online catalogue to find a particular author’s works; the catalogue may provide a link for "nearby items on shelf" which you can explore for additional works by the author or books by critics on the author's works. You can also browse the stacks where the author's works are located to find relevant articles and books.
- Many university library websites offer subject-guide pages, specific to particular subjects or disciplines. The subject guide web page is the place to go to begin research in any discipline, not just English. Trent's English Literature subject guide gives information on and links to the following research tools:
- Online Indexes – Indexes are like search engines, but they search only for articles that have been published in academic journals/periodicals and other academic sources. You can search an index for relevant articles. Many indexes make full-text articles available online, some don’t and you have to find the print periodical to read the article in full. They are the best way to search for articles.
- Related Websites – The subject guide also lists websites related to the study of English literature. Take some time to browse through the sites listed. Note how they differ from essay selling sites in their emphasis on the free dissemination of knowledge and on the people and institutions behind the knowledge.
- Reference Books - The subject guide also lists all the reference books pertinent to English and where they are in the reference section of the library.
- Google Scholar can get you started finding scholarly sources online.
Many undergraduate English essays do not require extensive use of secondary sources. Critical editions of literary works, the library stacks, online indexes and subject guides should yield plenty with which to work. Finding good secondary sources is, of course, only a first step. The second step is to use them properly.
- Use what the critics have to say to support your own thesis. That is why it is so important to follow good essay writing procedures and think things through as much as possible on your own first.
- Sometimes the well runs dry, and you just can’t come up with much on your own. Use a critic sparingly to spark an idea, but then try to run with it yourself. You will have to cite the critic for the idea, but how you go on to apply it will be yours.
- Sometimes you come up with something yourself and then find a critic saying the same thing. It’s still your idea, and you can present it as your own and use the critic to add support and authority. Sometimes you may disagree with a critic’s interpretation. Feel free to use the critic’s argument as a starting point and then present your own ideas in opposition.
- The main source of support and evidence for your points is the primary text. Try to draw your conclusive evidence from the primary text, the work in question.
- Keep the idea of synthesis in mind. A synthesis is a whole that was created by mixing together separate parts. Some of the ideas in your essay may be yours backed up by evidence from the primary text, and some belong to various critics, but the whole is created by mixing the parts together. You, as synthesizer and essay-writer, properly subordinate the critics, and you use them so they can best help support your thesis.
Remember, yours is the intelligence that mixes together what you think and what others think (by always telling the reader when it is you speaking and when it is someone else and who that someone else is). Yours is the voice that should most strongly come through.
Read more about effective summarizing and paraphrasing to avoid plagiarism.