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Imagine your teacher asks you to write an essay about the Civil War. What is the first thing you do? You might read a book about the Civil War. You might look up websites, videos, or museum exhibits. The objects you use to find information are called source material. It is important to use different types of source material to get information and ideas on your subject.

Source Material: Definition

The source material is the collection of objects a writer uses to gather information and ideas. Sources can be written, spoken, audio, or visual materials.

What Counts as Source Material?

Source material includes anything you use to get information and ideas. Here are some examples of different sources you might use:

  • Written materials can be found in print form (books, newspapers, and handouts) or digital form (websites, blogs, and social media posts).

  • Spoken materials are, for instance, a speech or lecture.
  • Audio materials are things you listen to that are not spoken. Music and sound recordings are great examples of audio materials.
  • Visual materials are materials you look at that are not written. For example, you might look at a graph, photo, or painting.

Look to the chart below for more examples of source material:

Source Material, Example Chart of Source Material, StudySmarterSource Material Example Chart, StudySmarter Originals

Importance of Source Material

The source material is important to learn about your subject and support your argument. You can't write an essay about the Civil War if you do not use sources to learn about it!

Source Material is Important for Finding Information

Where do you get information from? You get it from sources. You can use a variety of sources to learn something. When writing, use these different sources of information to explain your subject.

You are writing an essay about the effects of drought on California farming. You might use the US Department of Agriculture's reports on California droughts to learn about this subject.

But one source is usually not enough. You could also use news articles and interviews with California farmers. Each source gives you a different perspective.

Source Material is Important for Supporting an Argument

Sources not only help us learn information. They also help us use that information to form opinions on a subject. You can use sources to convince the reader you are right.

You are writing an essay on the best way to reduce drought damage. You might use some of the same sources as in the previous example. These sources help you form an opinion on the subject (your argument).

After looking at these sources, you decide the best way to deal with drought is to invest in soil health. You use statistics from USDA reports to show how important soil health is. You also use quotes from interviews to demonstrate how farmers agree with you.

Types of Source Material

There are three major types of source material: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Each is helpful in its own way.

The Three Types of Source Materials

You get different types of information from different sources. Each source type has its own uses. See the table below to learn more about the different source types.

Type of Source MaterialDescriptionExamples

Primary sources

A primary source is a source that comes directly from the subject or era you are writing about. Primary sources give perspectives on events and experiences. They give you an idea of how things happened. Use primary sources to interpret and analyze your subject.
  • Photographs from a historical event
  • Interviews with people who have personal experience with your subject
  • Newspapers published in the time period you are writing about
  • Diaries from people who lived during a historical event
  • A novel you are analyzing for a literature essay

Secondary sources

A Secondary Source is a source that is about the subject but does not come from that subject or era. Secondary sources give interpretations on how and why things happen. They offer an outside look at things.Use secondary sources to supplement your own interpretations and analyses.
  • Books about your subject
  • Journal articles analyzing the same novel you are analyzing
  • Interviews with experts on your subject
  • Lectures from teachers
  • Current books discussing historical events

Tertiary sources

A tertiary source is a source that helps you find other sources. Tertiary sources are containers for other sources. They offer you a way to find information.Use tertiary sources to find primary and secondary sources.
  • Search engines (like Google)
  • Library & Government databases
  • Archives
  • Wikis (like Wikipedia)
  • Bibliographies from primary and secondary sources

Deciding What Types of Source Material You Need

The type of source material you need depends on how you plan to use it. It helps to think about the relationships between the three types of sources. When finding sources, you can start at the outer edge of the circle, tertiary sources. Use these to find the secondary sources. Then, work your way toward primary sources when needed.

Source Material, Relationships Between Source Types Source Material, StudySmarterRelationships Between Source Types, StudySmarter Originals

Different types of sources serve different purposes. Use the following scenarios to help you decide what you need as you write:

You might need a tertiary source if...

  • You don't know where to start. Start with a search engine or a library database! Use keywords to find other sources.
  • You want a narrowed source list. You might start with a tertiary source like Wikipedia to find a list of important sources. Sites like Wikipedia usually include a list of important sources at the bottom of the page. These are helpful for narrowing down sources.
  • You need more sources. Let's say your essay requires at least four sources, but you only have two. Try a new tertiary source! Look at the bibliographies of sources to find new ones.

Quick Tip! DO NOT use tertiary sources for information or ideas. For example, you do not want to use information from Wikipedia. Anyone can edit Wikipedia, so the information is sometimes wrong. But that doesn't mean you can't use it as a tertiary source!

You might need a secondary source if...

  • You want an overview of a subject. Secondary sources often give overviews of broad subjects. For example, a textbook can give you a basic overview of your subject.
  • You need interpretations of an event or experience. Secondary sources like journal articles and news reports can show you what other people think about your subject.
  • You want to compare your analysis with others' analyses. When analyzing a text, you might want to know what other people have to say about it! You can use secondary sources to find quotes from people who agree or disagree with you. You can also use them to get new ideas for your analysis!
  • You want to know what others think about your subject. Knowing others' ideas is important. They can help you form your own ideas. For example, let's say you are arguing that social media is harmful to children. You can use arguments from other writers to support your claim.

Quick Tip! Be sure not to pass off others' ideas as your own. Give credit where it's due. Secondary sources offer us helpful interpretations. Make sure it's clear whose interpretation you are using. For example, instead of writing "I think Mark Twain used dialect in a unique way," you might write "I agree with Author A that Mark Twain's use of dialect was unique."

You might need a primary source if...

  • You want specific information that can't be found in a secondary source. Not every subject has been written about! Sometimes there are no secondary sources on a subject. In this case, it's time to look for primary sources.
  • You need perspectives from people with direct experience with your subject. Sometimes you need to know what an experience is like. For example, you might use social media posts from young mothers to understand what their experience is like.
  • You need a source to analyze. When writing a text analysis essay, you need a text to analyze. For example, if you analyze the use of setting in Wuthering Heights, the novel is your primary source.
  • You want to verify a quote or idea from a secondary source. Nobody is perfect. Sometimes secondary sources misquote or misinterpret something. It's always a good idea to go to the source they are interpreting (the primary source) and see it with your own eyes.
  • You need evidence for your argument or analysis. Primary sources are great places to find examples, statistics, and facts. For example, let's say you are arguing against the use of standardized testing in schools. You can use statistics from studies and reports to support your argument.

When choosing sources, it's important to make sure they are credible. Credibility is a source's trustworthiness.

To check a source for credibility, consider the following:

  • Publisher: It should be obvious who published the source. You can look up the publisher to see if other people find them credible.
  • Author: It should be obvious who created the source. If the author is a corporation or a group, that's okay - it should still be obvious who is responsible for creating the source.
  • Publication date: The date of publication should be available and easy to find. Keep in mind how long ago the source was published. Your teacher might want sources published within a specific time frame.
  • Source support: Credible authors support their claims with other sources. That way, you can tell where the author got their information from.
  • Source access: Credible sources include citations or hyperlinks to other sources. That way readers can verify their sources. It should be easy to look up the cited sources.
  • Representation: Sometimes authors misquote or misinterpret other sources to make their point. Double-check the cited information to make sure it's represented correctly in your source.
  • Alignment: The information in the source should match the information in similar sources. It's okay if the author has their own take on the issue! But the information they share should still match the information from other sources. Look up other sources on the issue to see how your source aligns with them.

Source Material in Writing

You can use source material to summarize ideas, paraphrase explanations, and quote other people. Together, these different uses support your argument and explain your ideas.

Different Ways to Use Source Material

There are three key ways to use source materials in writing: summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting. Try using a blend of all three in your essay. Let's take a look at these different uses with examples:

Source Material UseDescriptionExample

Summary

To summarize a source is to provide a general overview of its ideas. Think of it as your interpretation of the source. When summarizing a source:
  • your goal is to translate the main idea of the source for the reader.
  • focus on the "big picture" main idea of the source.
  • do not use any words or phrases from the source itself.
CNN provides a history of the Post-It note that starts in the 1960s. They trace the history through its creation as a removable adhesive to the wide-selling product of today.

Paraphrase

To paraphrase a source is to translate a key idea, concept, or quote from a source. When paraphrasing a source:
  • your goal is to translate 1-2 key ideas from a source.
  • focus only on the 1-2 specific ideas that relate to your essay.
  • you might use 1-2 words from the source, but focus mostly on translating the ideas in your own words.
According to CNN, people did not initially believe in the potential of the removable adhesive used in Post-It notes. OR:According to CNN, people did not initially believe in the potential of the "removability characteristic " of the adhesive used in Post-It notes.

Quote

To quote a source is to use the author's exact words to support your own ideas.When quoting a source:
  • your goal is to use the author's words to connect their ideas to your ideas.
  • blend the quote into your own sentences to make the connection between the quote and your ideas clear.
  • always cite the page number, paragraph number, or stanza number on which the quote appears in the source.
CNN reports the inventor of the Post-It note "struggled for years to find a use for his invention," and could not convince anybody of "the merits of his creation."1

Quick Tip! Use a balance of summaries, paraphrases, and quotes in your writing. Balance keeps your work understandable and engaging.

Source Material - Key takeaways

  • Source material is the collection of objects a writer uses to gather information and ideas. Sources can be written, spoken, audio, or visual materials.
  • Source material is important to learn about your subject and support your argument.
  • There are three major types of source material: primary, secondary, and tertiary.
  • The type of source material you need depends on how you plan to use it. It helps to think about the relationships between the three types of sources.
  • You can use source material to summarize ideas, paraphrase explanations, and quote other people.
  • Use a balance of summaries, paraphrases, and quotes in your writing. Balance keeps your work understandable and engaging.

1. and

Source Material

Source material is the collection of objects a writer uses to gather information and ideas. Sources can be written, spoken, audio, or visual materials.  

Examples of source materials include books, journal articles, photographs, and government reports.

A source is an object from which you get information or ideas for your writing.

The three types of source material are: primary sources, secondary sources, and tertiary sources.

You should use source materials to learn about the subject and support your argument. 

Final Source Material Quiz

Question

What is source material?

Show answer

Answer

Source material is the collection of objects a writer uses to gather information and ideas. Sources can be written, spoken, audio, or visual materials. 

Show question

Question

What are some examples of written source material?

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Answer

newspaper

Show question

Question

What are some examples of spoken source material?

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Answer

interviews

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What are some examples of audio source material?


Show answer

Answer

sound recordings

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What are some examples of visual source material?


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Answer

photographs

Show question

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Source material is important for: 

Show answer

Answer

learning about a subject

Show question

Question

What are the three types of source material?

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Answer

Primary

Show question

Question

What are tertiary sources useful for?

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Answer

Tertiary sources are helpful for finding secondary and primary sources.

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What are tertiary sources NOT useful for? 

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Answer

Tertiary sources are not useful for identifying information and ideas because they may be incorrect.

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Question

A secondary source is a source that is ____ the subject but does not ____ that subject or era. 

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Answer

A secondary source is a source that is about the subject but does not come from that subject or era.

Show question

Question

What type of source material is helpful for gaining a sense of other people’s opinion on a subject? 

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Answer

Secondary source material

Show question

Question

What type of source material is helpful for getting the perspectives of people who have direct experience with a subject? 

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Answer

Primary source material

Show question

Question

What is a primary source? 

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Answer

A primary source is a source that comes directly from the subject or era being written about. 

Show question

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What does it mean to summarize a source? 

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Answer

To summarize a source means to provide a general overview of its ideas.

Show question

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To translate a key idea or concept from a source in one's own words is called: 

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Answer

Paraphrasing

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When one uses an author's exact words to support their own ideas, this is called:

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Quoting

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What is the definition of a secondary source?

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A secondary source is defined as a source that provides a second-hand explanation or analysis of primary sources. 

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What are the key differences between secondary and primary sources?

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How closely they are connected to the subject

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True or False: 

Good writing uses both primary and secondary sources.

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Answer

True! They should be used together.

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What are the three types of secondary sources? 

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Answer

Explanatory Sources

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What are some examples of explanatory sources?

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Answer

textbooks

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What are some examples of analytical/interpretive sources?

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journal articles

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What are some examples of argumentative sources?

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debates

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What are secondary sources useful for?

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Answer

understanding what is known about a subject

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What questions can a writer ask themselves to choose secondary sources?

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Answer

What do I still not know about my subject?

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What is a counterargument? 

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A counterargument is an argument that disagrees with the writer's argument. 

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Do secondary sources use primary sources?

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Yes! Secondary sources analyze or explain primary sources.

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What is credibility?

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Credibility is a source's trustworthiness. It determines how much one can trust a sources' information and ideas. 

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Is it okay to use unreliable secondary sources?

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No. Unreliable sources make it difficult for the reader to trust the writer.

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What are some features of unreliable sources?

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provides incorrect information

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What are some features of credible sources?

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includes information that matches other secondary sources

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How can one determine if a source is credible?

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Find the date of publication to make sure it's recent.

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What do primary sources provide evidence of? 

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Primary sources provide evidence of the people, events, or phenomena that are being researched.

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What is the definition of primary sources?

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Answer

Primary Sources are first-hand accounts of a topic from people who had a direct connection with it. 

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What are the two key differences between secondary and primary sources?

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where they come from


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What are secondary sources

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Secondary sources are sources that provide second-hand explanations or analyses of primary sources

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A synthesis essay is a form of what type of source? 

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secondary source

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What does it mean to synthesize?

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To synthesize means to connect different pieces of information like puzzle pieces into one cohesive argument or explanation.

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If a source comes from the historical time period a researcher is studying, what type of source is it?

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primary source

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True or False:

Secondary sources can be used as primary sources.

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Answer

True! If a researcher analyzes a secondary source to draw their own conclusions, they are using it as a primary source.

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What are some of the purposes of primary sources?

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They give access to the uknown

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Finish this sentence: 

Historical primary sources are used to _____.

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Answer

Historical primary sources are used to learn about a historical event or experience.

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Question

A researcher uses marriage records to identify how often young women got married in 19th century Massachusetts. 


What type of primary source is this an example of? 

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Answer

historical primary source

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What is ephemera?

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Ephemera are sources created for only a short period of time. For example, postcards and ticket stubs are only created for short-term use. 

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What are some examples of objects and artifacts that can be used as historical primary sources? 

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clothing

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What are current primary sources used to learn about? 

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Answer

Current primary sources are used to learn about modern-day subjects.

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A researcher analyzes the social media posts of young people to understand how they communicate about mental health in these spaces. 


What type of primary source is this an example of? 

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Answer

current primary sources

Show question

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What are some examples of data one can use as current primary sources?

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Answer

government datasets

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A researchers wants to convey the main idea of a primary source they are analyzing. How can they best do this? 

Show answer

Answer

summarize

Show question

Question

Paraphrasing summarizes what?

Show answer

Answer

a key point or two from a source

Show question

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