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How to actually use source material in your answer

By Lauren Condon on 19 June 2017Exam adviceNSWblog

We spend all year studying for trials and HSC exams so it’s pretty understandable to completely freak out when a question asks us to talk about a piece of source material (picture, quote, etc.) that we’ve never seen before.


Anyway, it’s seriously common and addressing the source material in your answer is one of those things you need to be able to do well or else you’re going to be losing marks on questions where you actually know the answer.

So quickly, here’s a quick list of what NOT to do:

  • Ignore all your study and just write down any thought about the source material
  • Completely change your plan for how you would answer
  • Ignore it all together
  • Just mention it once or twice

It’s all about striking a really good balance between addressing the source material properly and using it to shape your answer, but also having a well-thought out argument that uses the content from the syllabus.

Sound tricky?

It’s not that bad, here are the steps you need to take:

1. Decide what that piece of source material is saying

So, the source material can be many things but it’s most likely going to be a quote or a picture (that you haven’t seen before 😱).

Your first step is going to be deciding what that source material is saying. Because you’re either going to have to evaluate the material or write your answer “with reference” to it, you really need to know what it means. Let’s look at an example to make this a bit more obvious.

So, the English Standard Paper 1 in 2015 gave 5 different images for us to choose from when writing the creative piece. You can check out the images on page 9. We’re asked to:

“Compose a piece of imaginative writing which explores the unexpected impact of discovery. Use ONE of the images on the next page as the central element of your writing.”

One of the pictures is of a balloon lifting up the base of a concrete wall (it’s abstract, okay?). So, we could decide to interpret that image as saying “small discoveries about the world around us can lift blockages in our worldview and lead to big discoveries about ourselves”. You can always tailor your interpretation to what you were prepared to write about as long as you can still make the connection to the source image clear!

Hint: that will pretty much be the ‘thesis’ for our creative, it refers to the source image AND it addressed the ‘explore the unexpected impact of discovery’.

2. Work it into your overall argument

So, we know what the material is saying. Yay! Now it doesn’t matter that you haven’t seen it before and you don’t need to freak out.

The next step is to recognise that the source material usually goes along with pretty chunky questions. Like, I’m talking 20 or 25 marks. So they’re the kind of questions that are going to need some kind of overall “thesis” or general argument (just like we saw in that creative writing example above). You’re going to need to work the message of that source material into your argument. So, let’s try this with another example from the 2015 HSC Visual Arts exam:


We checked in with our Visual Arts expert and she reckons that it would be important to construct your answer around the ‘gallery’ and what that means in the contemporary world. As in, your argument would centre around the idea that they’re not just big prestigious, institutional buildings anymore, the gallery has become public spaces, cyber intangible spaces, derelict and impoverished spaces - and the choice of space also becoming important to constructing this experience.

That’s really just the content and ideas from the syllabus so you will have those arguments and evidence prepared anyway, the source material just gives you some direction about how to pull those ideas together.

3. Show the marker you are interpreting the source material

Now that we’re done with the “thinking” part (which should really be taken care of in your reading time), either use a chunk of your introduction or write a paragraph that deals with the source material and sets up your essay.

Remember: it’s a little different if you’re writing an english creative where you can’t really mention the source material outright without kind of ruining the flow of your story. Instead, try to incorporate keywords or imagery that makes a really strong connection to the material. From that example earlier, you might include sentences like 'I could see something that I had never seen before' or ‘it was like this whole world had been hidden behind a wall’. If you’re feeling pretty confident and don’t want to be so obvious, use words like ‘lift’, ‘view’ and ‘outlook’.

The big tip is that you really want to show your marker that you are seriously responding to the source material and not kind of just giving it the odd shoutout here and there in a pre-prepared answer.

So, when it comes to each paragraph of an essay/long response you’re writing, make sure you make at least one reference to the source itself. It really isn’t as hard as it sounds! If you were writing that Visual Arts essay, you would specifically mention the Bill Henson quote in your introduction and introduce your argument with it. Then in each body paragraph, if you were using the PEEL (point, explanation, example, link) structure, you would reference the quote in those final ‘linking’ sentences of each paragraph.


Source material is all about the mind game because you just need to remind yourself that you can write about something you haven’t seen before. The real secret is to make a clear decision about what that picture or quote really means, explain that to your marker and then keep that idea coming up in your answer. These might not pop up in your exams but if they do, make sure you know how to tackle them head on! 👊

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