Finding Purposeful and Specific Textual Evidence

Imagine presenting the court case of the century, a trial whose outcome will impact people for decades to come…. without any evidence. The big-wig judge calls on you –the prosecutor– to approach the bench and present your case, and you have no forensic data, no eye witness accounts, nothing. Sound ridiculous? So should writing an essay without textual evidence.

The truth? You can't handle writing the truth without textual evidence!

The truth? You can’t handle writing the truth without textual evidence!

No matter how eloquent, no matter how grammatically sound, no matter how organized, no matter how correct– without evidence, any and all argumentation will fall flat.

Textual evidence is evidence, gathered from the original source or other texts, that supports an argument or thesis. Such evidence can be found in the form of a quotation, paraphrased material, and descriptions of the text.

The paragraphs that follow provide all the information you need to locate relevant textual evidence and to use it in your writing as a direct quote. Throughout this post, you’ll find step-by-step instructions and an example from the start to finish of the process.

[Continue reading to learn how to find terrific textual evidence!]

Evidence of What?

Before you can begin the search for that illusive textual evidence that your teachers demand of you, you must first determine what point you’d like to prove. Does the tragic hero’s life crumble about his feet because of his stubborn pride? Does the author use descriptive language to set a particularly dark tone? Once and only once you know what you’d like to prove can you identify a piece of key textual evidence.

As an example, let’s use The Hunger Games and the single most perfect male character known to human-kind:  Peeta Mellark. In this case, my purpose is to prove to my audience that Peeta’s greatest trait– and the trait that allows him to survive the Hunger Games– is his sense of humor. Bam. Purpose-ified.

Once you know what argument you’d like to make, begin the search for evidence: Find a portion of the text that supports your idea and then locate the most important part of that evidence. Maybe it’s dialogue that points to a character flaw or a snippet of scintillating imagery. Is there a particular word or phrase that is essential to your argument? If you removed that word or phrase, would the evidence be as convincing? Consider the words’ definitions, the feelings they evoke, and the context of the situation.

One scene that demonstrates Peeta’s personality, in my mind, is when Peeta and Katniss are reunited during the Games. The whole scene is sprinkled with Peeta’s wit in what would otherwise be a very dire situation since Katniss finds Peeta dreadfully wounded. However, I cannot quote an entire page of text as my evidence, print my essay, and turn it in. No sir, it is my job to draw attention to only the most important details.

Let’s look at a larger passage narrated by Katniss describing when she first hears Peeta:

    “My foot has just broken the surface of the water when I hear a voice.

    ‘You here to finish me off, sweetheart?’

    I whip around. It’s come from the left, so I can’t pick it up very well. And the voice was hoarse and weak. Still, it must have been Peeta. Who else in the arena would call me sweetheart? My eyes peruse the bank, but there’s nothing. Just mud, the plants, the base of the rocks.

    ‘Peeta?’ I whisper. ‘Where are you?’ There’s no answer. Could I just have imagined it? No, I’m certain it was real and very close at hand, too. ‘Peeta?’ I creep along the bank.

    ‘Well don’t step on me.’”

Peeta’s dialogue is meant to be lighthearted and witty. But how can you tell without hearing the words actually spoken aloud? For me, the word “sweetheart” seemed very strange at first. “Sweetheart” makes me think of love songs, romantic comedies, and other gooey emotional stuff. Strange indeed, considering the context:  a violent, battle-to-the-death scenario. Who would use such an endearing name in the arena? The person must not be using the word somewhat ironically.

And “finish me off?” This is euphemistic considering the gore and horrors surrounding them and considering, ultimately, one of them will have to be killed. I can’t imagine the speaker is serious since I think he’d use a more harsh phrase if he were.

Peeta saying, “Don’t step on me” is funny too since he could have just as easily told her where he was rather than making her search for him. It reminds me of someone taunting someone else while playing hide and seek.

All of these observations about word choice are important. Especially when it comes to published works, every word is chosen for a reason. And even more so with fiction:  authors can choose to say whatever they’d like, however they’d like, so every word is an important decision that crafts the story in a purposeful way. In this case, I think the author put in extra thought when choosing “sweetheart” and “finish me off,” and so, these would be perfect pieces of evidence for my essay.

To learn about how to introduce and integrate this important evidence into your essay in the form of a direct quote, read on: Introducing and Integrating Textual Evidence With Grace.

About the author:  Caroline graduated magna cum laude from The College of New Jersey with a degree in English and Secondary Education. She taught 8th grade language arts and has enjoyed tutoring in a number of different contexts, including through volunteer opportunities, tutoring centers, and one-on-one tutoring. In her free time she enjoys applying literary theories to non-literary topics, faking athleticism fairly well, and pondering philosophical, political, and sociological quandaries. Since she lives to help others, she is looking forward to utilizing her education and experiences in order to help PT continue to make a difference in students’ lives

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About Caroline

Caroline graduated magna cum laude from The College of New Jersey with a degree in English and Secondary Education. She taught 8th grade language arts and has enjoyed tutoring in a number of different contexts, including through volunteer opportunities, tutoring centers, and one-on-one tutoring. In her free time she enjoys applying literary theories to non-literary topics, faking athleticism fairly well, and pondering philosophical, political, and sociological quandaries. Since she lives to help others, she is looking forward to utilizing her education and experiences in order to help PT continue to make a difference in students’ lives.

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