Source Material

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 Source Material

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Table of contents

    Source Material Definition

    A source material is something you use in your paper.

    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.

    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.

    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 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 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.

    Source material. Arid land. StudySmarter.Fig. 1 - A source highlights your argument.

    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.

    Source MaterialAbout
    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.

    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.

    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.

    Source Material Examples

    Here are examples for each type of source.

    Source MaterialExample
    Primary sources
    • Photographs from a historical event
    • Interviews with people who have personal experience
    • Newspapers published in the time period you are writing about
    Secondary sources
    • Books about your subject
    • Journal articles
    • Interviews with experts on your subject
    • Lectures from teachers
    • Current books
    Tertiary sources
    • Search engines (like Google)
    • Library & Government databases
    • Archives
    • Wikis (like Wikipedia)
    • Bibliographies

    Deciding What Source to Use

    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.

    When to Use a Tertiary Source

    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.

    DO NOT use tertiary sources for information or ideas. For example, you do not want to use information from Wikipedia.

    When to Use a Secondary Source

    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.

    Be sure not to pass off others' ideas as your own. Give credit where it's due!

    Source material. Network of stone pawns. StudySmarter.Fig. 2 - A secondary source helps you understand perspective.

    When to Use a Primary Source

    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 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.

    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 and DescriptionExample

    To summarize a source is to provide a general overview of its ideas. Think of it as your interpretation of the source.

    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.

    To paraphrase a source is to translate a key idea, concept, or quote from a source.

    According to CNN, people did not initially believe in the potential of the removable adhesive used in Post-It notes.

    To quote a source is to use the author's exact words to support your own ideas.

    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

    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.

    1. and

    Frequently Asked Questions about Source Material

    How should you use source materials? 

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

    What is 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.  

    What are source material examples? 

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

    What is a source in writing? 

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

    What are the types of source material?

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

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What are some examples of written source material?

    What are some examples of spoken source material?

    What are some examples of audio source material?

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    Team Source Material Teachers

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