Writing a Real College Essay: Part 5 - References


Welcome back to Part 5 of this video series on essay writing. In the previous video I showed you the draft I wrote and talked about some strategies for writing and editing the first draft of your essay.

One thing that was missing was a reference list and reference citations in the body of the essay itself. So that’ll be the topic for this video.

Assignment Instructions

Let’s just remind ourselves of the essay assignment instructions.

Write a 4-5 page research essay exploring a topic related to the field of animation/illustration or design studies.
Basic Requirements: 4-5 pages formatted according to GAS Style Guide. Minimum 4 significant sources (maximum of 3 websites); copies of resources to be included with your final paper.

Process: Class time will focus on various aspects of the research essay process, including selecting sources, taking notes, organizing ideas, incorporating researched information into your essay, and documenting sources.

So obviously one of the main goals of this assignment is to develop skills in finding, using and documenting reference sources in your writing.

There are a few things we need to talk about here.

GAS Style Guide

First, what is this GAS Style Guide? It’s the style manual the English faculty at this particular college have decided to use as a resource for writing research papers.

You can see it here. It has information on formatting papers using APA style, which is a very common style format in the social sciences. It’s short for American Psychological Association. It has guidelines on avoiding plagiarism, citing sources and preparing reference lists.

It also has sample reference formatting for a whole range of different source types, like journal articles, book chapters, audio and video files. This is really helpful.

This document is associated with this particular college, but it’s actually quite generic. Every college has a resource like this, either in the form of a document like this or a dedicated website.

So, first tip — get a hold of whatever style guide your institution uses, or that is recommended for the writing assignments for your class, and keep it handy. Scrivener is useful for this sort of thing because you can import any document or web page into the research folder, so you always have easy access to it.

Now, let’s go back and look at the assignment instructions:

Minimum 4 significant sources (maximum of 3 websites); copies of resources to be included with your final paper.

This guideline comes from this particular instructor for this class. It’s important to understand why an instructor would impose these kinds of rules, but also why you they’re almost useless as guidelines for students.

Instructors impose rules like this because they’re trying to get students to think about the reliability of the references they use. Not all sources are equally authoritative or objective. Part of learning to do research is learning to how to make judgments about the quality of sources.

Students are not great at this, and it’s very common for instructors to see students use Google to indiscriminately find sources online and cite them as authorities on a subject when they’re really not.

So this requirement to cite at least one non-website source, and at most three websites, is intended to make students be more mindful about the quality of sources.

And that’s all to the good, but my view is that requirements like this don’t help students learn principles for actually judging the quality of sources, so they’re of no use unless they’re accompanied by additional instruction.

What’s a “significant” source? That’s not helpful. Apart from being ambiguous — sources can be significant in a variety of different ways — if a student doesn’t already have the background to make a judgment about the significance of a source, how are they supposed to apply the guideline?

Also, this particular assignment imposes a maximum of three quote-unquote ‘website’ sources. I understand the motivation for a rule like this, but this is utterly, completely unhelpful for students.

What exactly counts as a “website” source? Anything in the form of an html document, or embedded in an html document? Anything that only exists as an html document? Is a podcast episode a website source? A YouTube video? It doesn’t say.

And why only three website sources? What if I was writing an essay on, say, the impact of the web and social media on the livelihood of working artists? I might want to survey a range of artists and their web-based activities, and I would need to cite those activities. Why on earth should I be restricted to citing no more than three web-based sources? That would be insane. No academic researcher follows rules like this.

So, we should agree that these requirements, though well-intentioned, are a very poor guideline for learning or implementing good research and citation practices.

If you get something like this from your instructor, my recommendation is that you talk to them in advance about your essay project and what sorts of references you plan to use and why you think they’re important.

I pray that any instructor you have will recognize the problems with these rules and will approve any reasonable use of web-based references in your essay.

Adding Citations and References to Your Draft

Now, let’s take a look at our five-page essay draft. It has no inline citations yet, and no reference list.

There are a couple of ways you can approach this.

One way is to just go through the essay and tag the places where you think a reference citation is needed.

I did that on this version. You can do it anyway you want. Here in Scrivener I just highlighted the period at the end of a sentence and used the comment tool to add a comment with a note on what sources I think are relevant.

I have a separate module on the Academy site for citing sources and avoiding plagiarism. That’s worth looking at if you’re not confident about which sorts of claims need to be cited and which don’t.

The basic idea is that you need to cite a source if you’re using words or ideas that are not your own, and that aren’t common knowledge.

Partly it’s about transparency and not misrepresenting the originality of what you’re saying, but it’s also about giving the reader opportunities to corroborate what you’re saying by pointing to relevant sources.

For example, in the opening paragraph I say that “today it is common to hear critics insist that no one should go to art school if it will leave them in debt after graduating”. Well that might be uncontroversial for people in the field but it’s not common knowledge to the general reader, so I made a note that I should add some references to back this up.

Then there’s this link where I say that “most students who attend art college will incur a potentially debilitating student loan debt”. Here I can add a citation to a reference on student loan debt for art students that I remember encountering during my research.

So that’s one part of the process -- identifying which claims in your essay need, or could benefit from, a supporting citation.

Now, this process is easier if you already have a reference list made up, and you’re familiar with the content in the references. Then you can drop in the citations fairly easily just by looking up your reference list.

Usually it’s not as simple as this. You often start with a short list of references and then as you do more research this list grows, and very often it will continue to grow as you’re writing your draft, and after your finished your draft.

It’s a good idea to plan ahead when you’re building your reference list, and have a document ready to go so that if you find something that you know you’ll want to cite, you can easily add it to your list when it’s convenient.

I usually don’t do this in while I’m reading and researching, because it can be disruptive. What I do is save the document or bookmark the link in some way so that I don’t forget about it, and then come back at some point and add them to your reference list.

Here’s the reference list that I gradually built as I was doing my research and formalized after I’d finished my draft.

In APA style you organize references alphabetically by last name.

In my list I have a lot of web-based references, including a lot of references to YouTube videos that show professional artists commenting on their art school experience and giving advice to aspiring artists.

This is a good example of why that restriction to no more than three web-based sources is ridiculous. YouTube videos and blog posts and podcast interviews and industry forums is precisely where this conversation is taking place; for the most part it’s not taking place in traditional print media.

Whether a source is an appropriate or inappropriate reference will depend on the subject matter and the context, and this is a good example of that.

By the way, if you’re curious about the conventions for citing web-based sources, this is a how the APA style manual recommends formatting the reference.

It’s an author-date system, so the first item is the author’s last name and first initial, followed by the date of publication in brackets.

If the same author has multiple references, the earlier publications come first. If the same author has more than one publication in a given year, then you add an ‘a’, ‘b’ or ‘c” to the date so you can distinguish them in your citation.

Then comes the title of the article or the video, and then a note that says “retrieved from”, and then the URL.

For an online video file, you give the name of the person who published the file, if you know it, and the name of the USER, or the channel name, in square brackets, because sometimes these are different from the publisher’s actual name; and then the title of the video, a note that it’s a video file in square brackets, and then the URL link.

Just fyi, word processors like to turn these URLs into live links by default, but the proper convention is to remove the live link before you submit your essay, so it shouldn’t show the default underline to indicate a live link. You can usually do that by right-clicking on the link and selecting “remove link”, or something similar, in whatever context menu pops up.

In standard APA style you’re supposed to use hanging indents for reference entries, where the first line is flush with the left margin but the rest is indented by half an inch or so. I haven’t done that yet here, but I would if I was submitting this for real.

Now let’s look at how the in-line citations look.

Here’s my five-page draft with the citations added.

In APA style you cite by giving the author and the date of publication in brackets. For multiple citations, like in this first paragraph, you order them alphabetically and separate them with a semi-colon.

If a reference is connected to a specific page number in your source, and you know the page number, it’s good practice to add the page number.

These formatting details are documented in the style guide. If you don’t have much experience reading academic papers with this kind of formatting then it can be a little disorienting, but that’s partly the point of a writing assignment like this, to get some exposure and familiarity with the conventions. This is part of what it means to be literate in the conventions of academic writing.

The first few times around you’ll need to check the style guide to see how it’s done. That’s why it’s helpful to have a style reference handy, because it’s hard to remember all the conventions, sometimes you just need to look it up.


Alright, so … I think we’re done! The last step would be to add this reference list to the end of my essay, add an appropriate header with my name and date, and I’ve got an essay to submit.

Someone asked me the other day if I was sure that handing in this essay would get me an A for the essay assignment for this course.

That’s hard to say because we’re playing a hypothetical game here, and you never know, maybe my instructor hates me for some reason.

But I can say this much. If there’s one topic that college instructors complain about more than any other, it’s the quality of the writing skills that they encounter in their freshman classes, and this is at both the university and community college levels. The complaint isn’t that students don’t have good research skills, that’s a given — it’s that so many students have a hard time writing even a single paragraph that doesn’t have some serious spelling or vocabulary or grammar errors in it.

You have to understand that the bar that is set by average student writing performance is really quite low. So if you can write clean and clear paragraphs, you’re already above average. If you can write an academic essay that follows standard conventions and is structurally sound, you’re WAY above average.

So yes, I’m confident this paper would get an A. Not because it’s the best paper ever written or that it couldn’t be improved, but because I know from twenty years of experience grading student essays that the majority of students entering college are not good writers, and most of them don’t improve all that much over the course of their studies. Some do, but most don’t.

So if you’re among the minority who are good writers, your grades will very likely reflect that and continue to reflect that, because you’re already in the top 10 or 20 percent of your class with respect to this key skill set, before the class even begins.

It almost seems unfair when you put it that way, but that’s the reality.

And that’s one of the reasons why I put together this course — because I want students to succeed in school and reap the benefits of literacy and effective communication skills — benefits that extend well beyond school.