This is a problem I've encountered from day one on our site: when I'm answering a question that's asking about what certain portions of a work of literature mean, do I need to include quotes from outside sources to support my answer? Is this always the case? Is there a time when my personal experience with the literature being discussed and my analysis of the question is sufficient to answer one of these questions?

Note that I'm asking about quotes from non-authorial, non-textual sources. Textual evidence is necessary.


2 Answers 2


No. Of course it's not always necessary.

If you can come to a sensible, well-reasoned conclusion simply by arguing directly from the text, that's absolutely fine - in fact that's the 'purest' form of literary analysis. If you have some outside quotes, e.g. from other analyses of the same text, or from interviews with the author, then those are great too, but they're not necessary to make a good answer.

Look at some of the excellent answers we've had on this site already which use only quotes from the text and a thoughtful analysis thereof, without any external sources. (Disclaimer: some of these are mine. Apologies for the self-promotion, but, well, they're the ones I'm most familiar with.)

Also, look at it from the point of view of attracting 'experts'. If somebody is an expert in a particular work (not necessarily in the sense of being a professional, but just someone who's read it many times and knows every line of it back to front), they're not going to need any external sources in order to write a good answer. Their own knowledge of the work in question should be enough.

Of course, it is necessary in some cases - there are some questions which do require external quotes in order to be answered. You can't always get all the relevant information just from close reading. But that doesn't seem to be what your question is asking.

  • Is it always necessary? No.
  • Is it sometimes necessary? Yes.
  • I downvoted this answer because it doesn't acknowledge that there are some questions that need outside sources to be answered properly.
    – user111
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 20:31
  • 2
    @Hamlet That's not what the question asks about. The question says "is it necessary to contain outside sources", to which the answer is no. They are usually valuable additions to answers, and some questions do need them, but they're not a uniform necessity.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 20:35
  • 2
    @Hamlet Take a look at the new final section - does it look better now?
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Feb 5, 2017 at 13:00

Answers should offer reasonable support, explaining "how" and "why" wherever possible. What that means changes depending on the claims being made.

If you're drawing your answer strictly from the text (see "close reading"), then your claims should be supported through the text. Claims about the author need to be supported through letters, biographies, historical context, etc.

When talking about religious allegory in "The Chronicles of Narnia," it'd be difficult to provide a good answer without citing both the "Narnia" text and some texts about Lewis's religious views.

Other peoples' opinions, theories, and interpretations are solid additional support for claims about those topics--but they usually are neither necessary nor sufficient. They often make answers better, but they aren't the only way to do so and it's important not to just take such things at face value; a great answer will compare scholarly opinion to the other evidence in the answer and draw conclusions.

The Lord of the Rings has been studied so carefully that almost any question we come up with has been considered already, and discussing those considerations could improve the value of the answer.

There are exceptions where critical context is very important, and the further we get from a purely textual analysis the more likely we are to hit on these exceptions.

An answer which mentions Poe's Philosophy of Composition would be pretty weak without mentioning the common critical opinion that Philosophy is an unreliable source.

Lastly, awesome answers help us track down more detail about the subject. Try to credit your sources and inspirations even if you're not quoting them directly.

When writing an answer that draws on Harold Bloom's influence theory I should probably mention where I'm getting the ideas so readers can research it further themselves, even if influence theory is tangential to the question.

  • You've hit the nail on the head. I would just add that if you cite an external source, you shouldn't just cite the part that says [book x means y]. You should explain how that external source came to that conclusion.
    – user111
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 3:56

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