Why put in references? Any work of scholarship, however humble, is a contribution to knowledge. As such, the path you followed to produce it should be retraceable, so that other scholars can follow your thread of reasoning and come to their own conclusions about what you say. If not, your piece is not a work of scholarship: it might qualify as creative writing, but it just won’t do in an academic context. The references are a map telling those who come after you where to put their feet, i.e. where and how to find the data you used in making your argument. You therefore have to refer to concrete things, like pages in books that actually exist. I’ve seen people write things like ‘Enid Blyton’ or ‘Wikipedia’ in their reference lists. This makes no sense: how is one supposed to follow in your footsteps over these vast trackless deserts? You have to refer to actual books/sites that exist as concrete entities, if possible mentioning the page numbers where relevant.
When you read for an essay, keep a notebook by you, and when you come to a point you want to use, quickly jot down the page number and a few words on the point in your notebook. When you take a book out of the library, before you sit down to read them, note down the author(s), editor(s) if any, full title, series title if any, publisher, place of publication and year of publication. If it’s an article, note the author, title, journal name, volume number, serial number, page range. Also jot down the accession number and shelf-mark: this will help you find the book easily again. This may sound very cumbersome, but believe me, habits like this will stand you in good stead in any research-based field, including journalism. Try and make this as close to second nature as you can; it’ll save you a lot of trouble and heartbreak later on.
A point that has been confusing people is how to balance your own opinions with those you read from others. The essential trick is to see the whole thing as a dialogue. You MUST react to what you read, whether it’s primary or secondary material. You must engage imaginatively with the text. Remember that all texts are produced by people, and therefore there is nothing ‘given’ about the way they are: someone chose to make them that way, and you can inquire into the reasons. If you are puzzled, or unsatisfied, or annoyed or irked by something, that’s a good place to start thinking about it. First look for the reasons behind your feeling, then check out the secondary material to see if anyone else feels like that. If no one does, then quite probably you’re on to something new. If someone has, read what they’ve written and see if it exhausts everything there is to say on the subject. If not, then again you’re in business.
OK, we are losing the thread here. My next post will be on selection from texts for an answer/ essay/term paper.