Ensuring your evidence fits your claims
The most common evidence you will offer to support your claims will be quotations from the texts you read and references to passages in them. Without such evidence, your claims are merely statements of opinion.You are entitled to your opinions but you’re not entitled to having your readers agree with them. In fact, your readers generally will not highly value your opinions unless you provide some evidence to support them. When you provide evidence, you turn your opinions into arguments.
But before readers can value your claim as supported with evidence, they must first understand how your evidence counts as evidence for that claim. No flaw more afflicts the papers of less experienced writers than to make some sort of claim, or to offer a quotation from the text, and assume that the reader understands how the quotations speaks to the claim. Here is an example:
Lincoln believed that the Founders would have supported the North, because as he said, this country was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The writer may be correct that Lincoln believed that the Founders would have supported the North, but what in that quotation would cause a reader to agree? In other words, how does the quotation count as evidence of the claim? The evidence says something about the views of the founders in 1776. How does that support a claim about what the founders would think about 1863? When pressed, the writer explained: “Since the Founders dedicated the country to the proposition that all men are created equal and Lincoln freed the slaves because he thought they were created equal, then he must have thought that he and the Founders agreed, so they would have supported the North. It’s obvious.”
Well, it’s not. After it has been explained, it may or may not be persuasive (after all, the author of “all men are created equal” was himself a slave owner). But it isn’t obvious. Quotations rarely speak for themselves; most have to be “unpacked.” If you offer only quotes without interpreting those quotes, your reader will likely have trouble understanding how the quote, as evidence, supports your claim. Your paper will seem to be a pastiche of strung-together quotations, suggesting that your data never passed through the critical analysis of a working mind.
Whenever you support a claim with numbers, charts, pictures, and especially quotations — whatever looks like primary data — do not assume that what you see is what your readers will get. Spell out for them how it is that the data counts as evidence for your claim. For a quotation, a good principle is to use a few of its key words just before or after it. Something like this:
Lincoln believed that the Founders would have supported the North because they would have supported his attempt to move the slaves to a more equal position. He echoes the Founder’s own language when he says that the country was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Licenses and Attributions
“A strategy for analyzing and revising a first draft” by Joseph M. Williams and Lawrence McEnerney, Writing in College,The University of ChicagoUniversity of Chicago Writing Program is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0