WriteCast Episode 51: Using Evidence in Academic Writing
© Walden University Writing Center 2018
MAX: Welcome to Write Cast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers, a monthly podcast by the Walden University Writing Center. I’m Max Philbrook,
CLAIRE: and I’m Claire Helakoski.
MAX: Today we'll talk about why evidence is important and how different ways of implementing evidence in your writing conveys different meaning to your readers.
CLAIRE: Hi listeners, welcome to WriteCast. To start out this episode about using evidence and citations, let's take a moment and talk about evidence and what it means to us. To me, evidence means using credible research to back up or support ideas and conclusions in my writing. What does it mean to you, Max?
MAX: That's a great definition, Claire. I always focus on the idea of support that you just mentioned. Rarely does a piece of evidence, to me, prove something-- instead, it just kind of offers support to whatever idea you're making an argument about. Evidence can take all sorts of forms as well. It could be an expert's opinion on something, it could be scholarly work published in an academic journal. The important thing to remember, though, I think is that not all evidence is created equal.
CLAIRE: Right. And I think it's easy to forget that evidence is anything that we're using to support our ideas, right? And since evidence can mean slightly different things to everyone, especially depending on the situation. I wanted to read you something that APA states about evidence, which is that "the scientific journal is the repository of the accumulated knowledge of a field. Familiarity with the literature allows an individual investigator to avoid needlessly repeating work that has been done before to build on existing work and in turn to contribute something new. Just as each investigator benefits from the publication process, so the body of scientific literature depends for its vitality on the active participation of individual investigators." That's on page nine of the APA's sixth edition manual, and I think it's important to focus in on what APA defines as evidence and why we use it for our work in these academic fields.
MAX: Right, it's really important to keep that quote in mind, Claire. I think what you just described there in the APA manual is the entire scholarly project in a nutshell. You know that old adage "to see further we must stand on the shoulders of giants"--have you heard that one, Claire?
CLAIRE: Yeah, I have.
MAX: To me, I think that really gets at the heart of what you're reading. It means that if we want to create new knowledge, we go it alone--we can't just, you know, stand there, and stand on our tippy-toes and hope to see further. Instead, we need to build up on what was already published. We need to know what has already been said in our scholarly conversations.
CLAIRE: Right, and APA also says--this is a much shorter quote—“a critical part of the writing process is helping readers place your contribution in context by citing the researchers who influenced you.” So, along those lines, the philosophy of evidence helps keep us accountable as writers and establish us as credible for our readers. So, we're letting the reader know that it's not just our opinion and that we're building on that previous work but also that we’re credible and we're doing our research, that we're placing ourselves in a different context than, you know, kind of the internet age or opinionated blogs. We're basing our research and ideas in facts and building it to make something new.
MAX: Yeah, it's not hard to find evidence out there these days, but the quality of the evidence, the credibility, like you said, Claire, of the evidence that you're using—that’s really what separates academic writing and scholarly pursuit against, I don't know, posts in social media or talk radio or anything like that. That is a really good point.
So, now that we've talked a little bit about what evidence is, let's talk a little bit about how we use evidence and how the placement of that evidence might imply different things to our readers. One of the most basic ways that writers incorporate evidence into their writing is by putting it in the body paragraphs. When you're using that evidence in your paragraphs, Claire, do you have any rules of thumb that you share with writers about incorporating that that evidence?
CLAIRE: Yes, so one of the biggest ones to kind of keep in mind is trying to avoid beginning your paragraphs with a citation. The reason for that is because you're going to emphasize your idea in contextualizing the work at the beginning there rather than sort of starting with somebody else's work.
MAX: Yes, exactly. We're using evidence to support our own arguments and you can really only do that if you are using your own voice to kind of guide the argument at the very important places in your paper. The purpose of scholarly writing is not just to report what others have said about the topic--although, some writing situations, that's what you're going to be doing. However, when you as a writer, engaging in the scholarly act of writing, you're entering that scholarly conversation. You're taking into consideration what's already been said, and you're adding and contributing your own voice to that mix. So when a reader comes to your paper, that reader doesn't want to only hear what's come before. They don't want to only hear a reporting of the evidence. The reader is there reading your work because they're interested in what you, as the writer, have to say about the topic. And trust me, as a writer in the social sciences, my guess is that you have a lot to say about your topic. Maybe you have a professional experience, maybe you've done lots and lots of research. Undoubtedly, though, you as the writer are in a position to insert your own voice into the scholarly conversation and therefore kind of shift, and change, and influence that scholarly conversation as well. So, all of that is to say, that you need to carve out spaces in your project, in your capstone, in your course paper, even in your discussion board post, where your voice comes out loud and clear. And at the beginning of the paragraph in a topic sentence, that's a great place for you to do that because it is so prominent and because your reader is already looking there for clues and tips about how to interpret your reading.
CLAIRE: And generally we also recommend ending your paragraph without that source information and instead in your own voice, to help put the emphasis on the sum of your ideas. So you're summarizing your ideas rather than leaving that up to somebody else, because the readers are there for your interpretation and guidance through the work. And if they wanted, you know, another author's ideas or another author has summarized exactly what you said, then you're not contributing something new to the conversation.
MAX: So, if a writer shouldn't begin a paragraph with a citation or end of paragraph of citation, Claire, where do you think is the best place to put evidence into a paragraph?
CLAIRE: In the middle of that body paragraph. So you have sort of where you're leading into your ideas so the reader feels grounded in your argument and then you can have those supporting pieces of evidence in the body that are gonna be balanced out by your analysis and you contextualizing it throughout. So there should always be that kind of back and forth balance and you might have heard us talk about the MEAL plan before. And that can seem like it falls apart with longer projects, but really what you want to keep in mind is having that balance to your paragraphs, having that balance for your evidence, that you're always explaining and integrating it and adding that analysis to contextualize it.
MAX: Yep, absolutely. So you put your idea out there and then you use evidence and different ways to support that part of your argument.
MAX: Cool. With that, it's also important to keep in mind how you place citations within sentences. How citations influence the way your reader interprets your ideas. One way that this becomes a problem in student writing is when writers are using citations kind of erroneously or the citation adds confusion. One way that this happens is when a writer is bringing up information from their own experience or putting ideas out there that are their own, but then also adding a citation. Here's what I mean. So, let's say you're writing, you're a master's of business student here at Walden, and you're writing a development plan. And a sentence goes like this: In my development plan, I will advance my writing skills (citation). That's confusing to the reader because they're left wondering, did the writer of the plan, did they mean that they're going to build their writing skills? Or is the writer of the source the one who's developing their writing skills? And I can see why the writer did this because they're saying someone said it's important to have good writing skills and that's the support for the idea that they'll build writing skills in their own program of study here at Walden. However, you can see how confusing that can be if you have the citation sitting at the end of the sentence of your own ideas. Another example I see of this quite often is when Walden students are writing about qualitative research methods and we get a lot of citations from a source, from Creswell, and so I read the sentence something like: In my capstone project I will utilize a qualitative research method (Creswell, 2017). The way I read this is that Creswell, in his 2017 study, cited the student's research about that, and that's probably not what happened. My guess is that this Walden student was not featured in Creswell's work--probably. And so what the writer is trying to say is, ‘I will use the methods as described by Creswell in my own studies.’ And so it can be a challenge to kind of find the balance there, but really I think the advice to take is try and find ways as the writer to separate your ideas from the ideas of the source. And so that's one way to do it, saying "Creswell (2017) described qualitative research methods that I will incorporate into my own writing," or something like that. Just finding out that way to separate the citation, the documentation, from the actual information that's coming from the writer.
CLAIRE: Right, and I think that's an important point thinking about what: would I find if I research the source? That's a good question to really ask yourself as you cite. Because your readers should be able to have a solid idea of what they're going to find if they go and look up this source and particularly if you're citing yourself or your plans, that can be really confusing so there are some strategies to kind of fix this particular issue and I think it's easier when you can see the sentences side to side by side. And I know we have some really great blog posts on this topic and Max is our blog master so maybe he can go over a few of those.
MAX: Thanks, Claire, that's a really nice compliment. I only am the master of the blog in that I talk about it a lot because I think it's such a great resource for our students. There is a post-- my little anecdote about Creswell--that kind of came from a blog post that's one of our most read posts, and it's called "Creswell did not write about you" and this just like you said, Claire, gives a side by side strategy about how writers separate those two things.
CLAIRE: Yeah. So, as you listen now though, because I know you might be in your car or on a run or walking your dog, think about how you use evidence in your work, and are you making it clear to readers what ideas are the words and what ones come from a source. Also, are you backing up your ideas rather than purely stating opinions? These are hard questions so don't worry if you're not totally sure about all of the answers. Instead, kind of build that mindfulness and awareness of how you use evidence and it'll grow over time. Also, grabbing a secondary reader and asking them if your use of evidence is clear and if it seems like you're supporting your points can be a great practice to kind of help build awareness and just see where little gaps might be in your work. That way if they're finding those places, you can pay attention to them and figure out what you can do to change it--whether that's adding more support or just clarifying the phrasing around your citation.
MAX: Those are great points, Clare. They are, they're really tough questions and sometimes you can't answer them until you get that secondary reader, until you have someone writing in the margins of your paper or giving you a comment online that says something like, how do you know this? or is there evidence that supports this? or you know if there are questions like that it can be…the best way to find out is by having someone else in there reviewing it. So, I think that's a really good strategy.
CLAIRE: So, if you're looking to expand your knowledge on using evidence and would like some additional resources, we have some recommendations. First, I want to recommend our evidence pages on the Writing Center website. That's academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter. And if you go to the evidence pages we have a whole section on incorporating and explaining and integrating evidence that I think is a really helpful and it uses some great examples you can really see what that looks like and kind of model that in your own work and your own context. I also recommend the in-text versus parenthetical citation blog that we have that really kind of clarifies how you can make that switch so that it's clearer where exactly you got that source information.
MAX: And don't forget to check out the blog “Creswell did not write about you,” our guide to citing I statements in your scholarly writing, and also all of the posts in our APA how -to series which are really designed to give you practical advice about using APA style to your benefit to better communicate with your readers.
CLAIRE: So be sure to check out those resources after you listen this episode. Until next time
MAX: Keep writing!
CLAIRE: Keep inspiring!
MAX: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. You can find past episodes on iTunes and on our website: academicguides.waldenu.edul/writingcenter. We'd love to hear from you. Connect with us on Facebook, on Twitter at @WUwritingcenter, and on our blog, waldenwritingcenter.blogspot.com. Thanks for listening!