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My Tips for Writing Essays Part 5: Love the source you’re with

In the last part of this blog series on my best essay writing tips, I talked about getting the sources you want.

“Love the one (source) You’re With”

So far in this blog series, we’ve talked about finding sources, managing citations and resources, and several other things. But today we’re going to talk about learning to love the sources you’ve got.

All too often, students waste valuable time and energy looking for a better source when their current one is more than adequate. In some cases, it’s even better to use the resources you have instead of searching for something better. This isn’t always easy, but with a little bit of effort, it can be done. Here are a few tips on how to make the best of what you have:

It’s easy to get lost in the sea of information that is the internet. Especially if you hate writing, it can be tempting to send yourself on a quest to find the One Best Source. However, at a certain point, research can become procrastination, and you have to learn when to call it and move onto the next phase.

Sometimes you’ve got a deadline, and other times you’re just stuck. Sometimes, like I said, you’re using the research to avoid something else.

So how can we make the best of what we have? Here are a few tips and scenarios showing what I mean:

Maybe your professor wanted you to use a specific book, but all you could find was a review of that book (Did you check out my blog post on how to track down sources, though?) – you know, one of those academic reviews that show up in journal articles and hence, Google Scholar or JSTOR or EBSCO or what-have-you. Use the review. Does it have direct quotes? Does it give you insight into the argument? Don’t lie and claim you have the book, but perhaps you could mention something like “Reviewers of this book noted its extremely nice font and pretty cover” or whatever else the reviewer mentioned.

Maybe you really, really, really need to work with this one article from 1986 that completely explains the benefits of Vitamin C in a way no other source has ever done, but it’s not digitized, your school library can’t get it for you, and all you have access to is the abstract or a citation from one of the people who’ve cited it. Do any of those citations have a direct quote? Can you quote the abstract? Does the abstract give you a pretty good idea of the basic gist of the argument? Then… just use it. Sure, quoting from the abstract is not the greatest thing ever, but it is sure better than not having a source to back up a claim.

What do you do once you’ve called it, or when you have to start writing, but you don’t think you’ve found the best sources? Find about 3 quotes, if you’re writing the kind of essay that requires an arbitrary number of quotes from each source. Then brainstorm a few ways to work each quote into the essay. If you have one of those professors that is exceedingly pedantic, just find a way to put a quote in, even if it does not frankly add much. Rubrics dominate everything these days, and if the rubric said you had to have a quote, but not that it had to be insightful, well, it’s malicious compliance time.

Next, try to be an optimist. By that I mean: What’s good about these sources? Come on, I’m sure you can say something nice. It can be tough to find something nice to say about a source, especially if you think it’s bad. But even if the source is terrible, there are still some good things you can point out.

For example, you might mention how the source is inaccurate or biased, but you can also highlight any strengths it has. You might focus on how well-researched the source is, or how interesting it is.

No matter what, try to find at least one good thing to say about the source. It will make your essay stronger and help you avoid sounding like you’re just trying to bash the source. After all… if you think writing just an essay is torturous; imagine writing a book or a journal article.

In short, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Use the resources you have – love the ones you’re (stuck) with.

Some of these tips were adapted from Deleuzienne’s 2020 book Paper Hacking 101.  

For more essay writing tips and help, reach out to Unemployed Professors.