Not Sure Whether You Should Paraphrase, Cite, or Block-quote? Assessing Evidence Length and Detail

After you finish your initial draft, the work you have put in to identify and incorporate sources into your work is not finished. Although you might have located the evidence you need during the drafting process, it’s now up to you to determine at what length and level of detail that evidence appears in your paper. Here we propose one way to determine how important the evidence you’ve discovered is to the claims you make in your text. This technique will help you decide both how vital a claim is to the Argument of your paper, as well as the form of evidentiary material warranted by your targeted claim. This will help you improve the Evidence and Analysis of your entire text.

Deciding how much detail to include when introducing evidence is partly a consideration of audience. If you expect your paper to be read by someone who is an expert in your field and has some familiarity with your sub-field, you may decide that mentioning your evidence at a shorter length is appropriate. On the other hand, if you are writing for non-specialists, you may want to include more background information about the evidence you are citing: for example, its relevance to conversations happening within the field or more detail about its source.

Another situation when you might expand the level of evidence presented is when you are making an especially bold claim or one that diverges from claims made by other scholars. If your argument aligns closely with others and is mainly building on their work, it may make more sense to include a minimal level of evidence demonstrating that claim’s popularity. If your argument diverges from what’s commonly accepted in your field, however, you may need to include more evidence and spend more time analyzing that evidence, than you would otherwise.

Try the following exercise for assessing evidence length and detail:

Step 1: Go through your paper and label each central claim that you make in support of your argument. Mark each claim as needing a high, medium, or low level of support via evidence:

    • High Claim: A bold claim OR one that diverges from norms of the field, or from what you have already discussed OR one that requires your audience to have a lot of background knowledge to understand/is being addressed to people outside of your field.
    • Medium Claim: A claim that is similar to one that others have made, but requires an understanding of others’ arguments or scholarship to understand OR one that requires some additional information that is not common knowledge to understand fully OR one that is being read primarily by people within your field, but not your sub-field.
    • Low Claim: A claim that is very commonly made, has been made by many others or has previously been addressed in your project OR one that your audience is familiar with or understands already.

Step 2: Return to each claim and label the evidence you are using to back it up. Make sure you are labeling evidence, and not your own analysis of that evidence. If there are places where you have a claim with no evidence, make a note to yourself that you need to return later to further support these claims with evidence.

Step 3: Evaluate the level of evidence presented and see if it matches up with the level of support needed for your claim. A claim needing a low level of evidence may be sufficiently supported by one or two sentences. A claim with a high need for evidentiary support may require a paragraph or several different sources to fully support it. Try to put yourself in the mindset of your audience: if you were reading this with their level of exposure to the subject you’re addressing, would you be able to understand it?

This strategy is closely related to “Trouble Balancing Evidence and Analysis? Color-coding to Find Your Evidence-to-Analysis Ratio.” When you become familiar with this revision process, you may decide to do both strategies at once. Once you have figured out an appropriate balance of evidence for your intended audience, that strategy will help you consider at what length you are analyzing that evidence—how you are unpacking it for your reader.