Finding Balance When Using Research

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Last week I shared research writing resources located in the Writing Center at Purdue Global University and talked briefly about research writing. One of the resources I mentioned concerned what I can best describe as using the right balance of content from the student writer and content from the research. One error many new-to-college writers make is overusing content from research to the extent that their own ideas get lost in the mix. I’ve seen papers that were a collection of quotes and paraphrases from sources rather than the writer’s own view and/or interpretation of and reaction to the research used. Some writers are under the impression that the more content from research presented, the better, as if that material alone will make the writer’s point. Not so! 

When writing a paper, you want to make sure that your voice is heard since you are the author. A paper that lacks your own thoughts is essentially a paper that reports what others have written. One good approach in terms of using evidence from research is to follow the 70/30-80/20 principle which basically says that 70-80% of your paper needs to be your own thinking–that is, your ideas, your analysis, your commentary, indeed, your words–and 20-30% will be content borrowed from sources–summaries, paraphrases, and quotes. These percentages are approximations, of course, but they can serve as a good general guide to follow as you incorporate content from research into a paper of your own. And what’s important to keep in mind is that your purpose for using evidence from research is to support the points you are making in a paper. 

Have you ever wondered why professors assign papers in the first place? They want to know what you think about an important topic in your field. They already know what the experts know and think, but they can only know what you think if you tell them. Every writing assignment is an invitation to grow an idea and share it with your readers even when using content from research. If you merely report, you will have made no attempt to think about the assignment, the course material, or the research. You will not show your professor your learning.

Instead, if you begin with what you know, identify what you need to know, and do research to answer your own questions, you can create your own original connections. In this way, you will join an ongoing discussion with others about issues and ideas that matter. As you research and draft, some of what you learn will validate your thinking, some of what you learn will enhance your understanding, and some of what you learn will challenge your thinking. All of this is good and will help grow your thinking.  

To create your own original work, first make sure you understand the assignment. Look for key terms like “analyze,” “discuss,” “argue,” “inform,” and “describe.” Identify the intended audience and state the purpose. Then search for the kinds of supporting research you might need to help you develop your ideas. When you are ready, write a draft without incorporating the research. Just try to express your own original understanding. Then, you will be ready to weave in selected bits of research to support those ideas.

Here are some practical tips for incorporating research in your paper. First, always introduce a paragraph with a sentence that you believe is your own thought on the subject matter. Frame each body paragraph with a focus statement or content that makes the focus clear. It’s important not to jump in too quickly to the evidence. Set things up and then move to bring in evidence.  

Second, introduce and comment on every quotation, paraphrase, and summary. Use evidence to help support an assertion you make and to serve as the basis of analysis. Do not rely on the evidence alone to make your case. You have to set up and comment on that evidence. Remember, you need to be the author or your own paper and let your thoughts be heard the loudest.  

Third, take your time and develop your own thinking. Follow the content you use from sources with your own interpretation, analysis, and commentary as a way to help explain how the evidence relates to and supports your point. Remember: The research you use does not make your point. You need to make your own point with your own language and insights. This is why most professors prefer paraphrase and summary over quotation because you have to understand something well before you can use it for your own purposes.

One final thought: It is wise to avoid using too many quotations or references because then someone else’s ideas dominate the discussion, not yours. When incorporating research, follow this pattern: introduce the content, integrate the information from the source, and follow it with commentary, analysis, and/or interpretation. In this way, the reader will focus on your ideas and the parts of your paper will fit together to support your thesis. 

By following these practical suggestions and employing the 70/30-80/20 principle, you will have a good balance of content that originates with you and content that originates from research.

Until next week–

Kurtis Clements

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