70 Framing Sources: MEA(L) Paragraphs and “Quote Sandwiches”
In his excellent chapter on integration, “Annoying Ways People Use Sources,” Kyle D. Stedman opens with the following general reminder about writing with sources:
In a blog, I cite a source by hyperlinking; in an academic essay, I use a parenthetical citation that refers to a list of references at the end of the essay. … [N]ot everyone in the entire world approaches these things the same way, but when I strategically learn the expectations of my U.S. academic audience, what I really want to say comes across smoothly, without little annoying blips in my readers’ experience.
The goal of integration is mostly to provide a smooth experience for your reader. However, writing with sources is often one of the most challenging aspects of academic writing, in part because there seem to be so many rules attached to it. Students feel confused because they see very different strategies when looking at news articles vs. social media vs. peer-reviewed articles.
The purpose of this lesson is to introduce first year writing students to the basic conventions of referring to outside sources in essays written for an academic audience. Many of the conventions in this chapter actually apply to most formal situations, including professional and journalistic writing.
Foundation to Writing with Sources: MEA(L) paragraphs and “Quote Sandwiches”
Before tackling the details of how to summarize, paraphrase, or quote information, it will help to think more broadly about how writing with sources typically shows up in an academic essay. When writing with sources, a fundamental technique students should pick up early is how to frame the information. To help simplify this for students, one common strategy is to learn MEA(L) paragraph. A paragraph that frames information from a source using this structure often has the following elements, in this order:
M = Main idea/framing. The first sentence(s) of a paragraph should either 1) state the paragraph’s main idea or point, or 2) carefully introduce the source by identifying the author and title. In some writing situations, the purpose of the paragraph might be to summarize the source, such as in an annotated bibliography. In other writing situations, the main idea might be a claim or sub-claim that needs to be proved, such as in a persuasive essay. What matters is that the reader has some context before becoming inundated with the information.
E = Evidence/Information. Underneath the main idea will be the details from the source, whether summarized, paraphrased, or quoted. Experienced writers blend all three forms of integration (summary, paraphrase, and quotes) seamlessly, rather than relying on just one. Depending on the writing situation, this part of the paragraph burger/info sandwich might take up most of the space, especially with annotated bibliographies. In other situations, the next part (A = Analysis/Discussion) will take up most of the space. One more tip for this section: it’s important to clearly signal to the reader when you’re referring to information from an outside source. To make this obvious, writers often introduce the information with something called a signal phrase, such as: According to ____, … . The chapter on “Signal Phrases” offers a more substantial introduction to this strategy for signaling a source.
A = Analysis/Discussion. This is where you develop the significance of the information, in your own words. This section is crucial to your paragraph. Don’t get caught in a quote trap of stringing quotes together without explaining, analyzing, or evaluating the information. If your paragraph dumps a lot of information on the reader without unpacking it, your writing will quickly become confusing and your reader will not be convinced that you understand the material you are writing about. This part of the paragraph or section might be better viewed as discussion (rather than analysis) because the goal is often to develop a thought using as many rhetorical strategies as possible, rather than merely analyzing the information. For example, to help develop the persuasiveness of evidence from a source, an experienced writer will often connect the dryer source information (logos) with a concrete personal example (pathos). For other tips on what it means to discuss or analyze information within a persuasive essay, refer to the section “Analyze and discuss the evidence” within the chapter on argumentation.
[optional] L = Lead out. When including a source in a longer writing situation, such as a researched persuasive essay, it’s often helpful to remind your reader how the ideas developed in the paragraph relate to the broader argument (thesis statement). It’s even more important to connect the paragraph with the next idea in the essay, otherwise known as “transitioning,” or “practicing cohesion.” In some writing situations you may not have a this final layer. Annotated bibliographies, for example, will just have the top two or three layers.
A similar strategy to MEA(L) is the “Quote Sandwich,” perhaps more accurately termed the “Info Sandwich.” This paragraph framework is very similar to MEA(L) but might feel more intuitive for those writing in the humanities, where more space is dedicated to unpacking key quotes from a text:
- Provide context: If you haven’t used it yet in the essay, tell us the source’s title and author (if known), and any other information that’s relevant, like the purpose of the organization that published it, for instance. Signal phrases are effective ways to quickly provide minimal context.
- Insert the quote: Provide the quote itself. Be sure to format correctly and use quotation marks around exact language.
- Explain the significance of the quote: Once you’ve inserted your quotation, along with its context and attribution, don’t stop! Your reader still needs your assessment of why the quotation holds significance for your paper.
It shouldn’t really matter if a student adapts the MEA(L) structure or “quote sandwich” to help writing with sources. Both work as fundamental integrative techniques. For example, we can see how either framework reiterates much of Stedman recommends in his excellent article, “Annoying Ways People Use Sources.” One of the well-framed paragraphs he admires can be analyzed using MEA or the “quote sandwich”:
In Stedman’s example above, the first sentence provides context for the information. The information itself, a key quote (E), is then introduced with a signal phrase (note the recurring importance of a signal phrase!). The remainder of the paragraph is the writer’s own discussion (A), which uses the quote as a springboard. The quote sandwich model is probably a better fit for this particular example, but the the MEA paragraph structure is very close. The only difference is that MEA emphasizes the importance of topic sentences, while the quote sandwich model emphasizes context.