Writing from Readings: Definitions and Examples

Carol Lynn Moder

In academic settings, writers commonly base the content of their writing on materials they have read.  For example, an instructor might ask you to describe or discuss specific information from an assigned reading (see Example 1). The first step to approach this writing task is to carefully read the assignment in order to make sure you understand what it will require.


Example 1:

Using information from The Cultural Feast and other assigned readings, Define ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. Provide specific examples of your reactions to the readings that might be instances of each.


This assignment indicates that the instructor expects you to use one key reading, called The Cultural Feast and other related readings to answer the question. The assignment makes clear that you need to have read these texts carefully and to refer to the text in your answer. So how do you refer to those texts correctly?

Informal In-Text Citations

As you saw in earlier chapters, there are a variety of ways to refer to another text in your writing. For many kinds of writing, you will have to use a formal documentation style, like APA, for your in-text citations and you will have to provide a reference page, as well. And other kinds of writing, particularly if you are referring to readings assigned for a class or if you are writing in a magazine or newspaper style, you may be allowed or expected to use a more informal way of referring to a text. You should check in with your instructor about which approach he or she expects you to use.

Note that the assignment in example one refers to the key text as The Cultural Feast. Here the instructor uses the title of the text and puts it in italics. The italics show this is the title of the book. Know if you are writing by hand, you would underline the title of the book, The Cultural Feast, since you can’t put it in italics. The title of an article or chapter would usually be put in quotation marks. In answer 2, we see this in the use of  “Eating as a Cultural Affair.” In this example, the writer puts the title in parentheses and gives the specific page number, a variation on a more formal in-text citation. If the instructor uses an informal citation in the question, it is probable that you can use it in your response. Remember, though, that it is always a good idea to ask the instructor what in-text citation format he or she expects.

A second in-text citation strategy is to use the name of the author of the article or book. We see this in Answer 1, where the student writes: “In Davidson’s article…”


Examples of informal in-text citations
In The Cultural Feast, ethnocentrism is defined as →Title of book in italics
The chapter, “Eating is a Cultural Affair” describes →Title of chapter in quotes
Bryant, DeWalt, Courtney & Schwartz highlight “ “ →Authors’ last names
According to Bryant and colleagues,…. →First author’s name, ‘colleagues’ used to avoid listing multiple authors


The two most important aspects of citing texts to display knowledge are to be sure that: 1) you refer explicitly to each specific reading you mentioned and 2) you make very clear when you are paraphrasing ideas or examples from the readings.

Reading the assignment CAREFULLY

The most important part of writing to display knowledge is to read the assignment VERY CAREFULLY and make sure you understand how many parts the question has and what they are. The most common mistake that students make on such writing tasks is to read the question too quickly and, as a result, answer only part of it. The assignment in Example 1 asks the student to do two main tasks: DEFINE and PROVIDE SPECIFIC EXAMPLES.

This is a typical format for some reading-based assignments and exam questions. In the two sample answers below, we find two different ways of organizing the response. In Answer 1, the writer addresses the first part of the question, defining the first term in the first sentence into the second term in the second sentence. The writer then provides examples in the following sentences. This answer follows the order of the question – defining first and then providing examples. In short answers of this kind, it is critical for the writer to make clear how he or she is connecting each definition to the examples. One way to do this is to repeat key terms from the question to show clearly how the examples illustrate the terms.

Look at Answer 1 and underline each place where the writer uses the key terms ethnocentrism and cultural relativism or a variation of those terms. Why does the writer repeat the terms in those places?


In this kind of writing, you need to be very clear which examples show the meaning of each term. Remember that you are writing to display your own understanding of the terms. You should not leave it to the reader to guess.


Answer 1

Ethnocentrism is one’s belief that they are superior and they judge other cultures based on the values and standards of their own culture. Cultural Relativism is the idea that a person’s beliefs or behavior should be understood by others in terms of that person’s own culture. When reading about eating insects in Eating is a Cultural Affair, my initial reaction was that it was gross and weird but I realized that I was being ethnocentric, rejecting the idea because it is odd in our culture. After stopping to think, when I tried to be more culturally relativistic, I realize that it is a common occurrence in many cultures in the insects can actually be a good source of protein. In Davidson’s article, he describes the Europeans as having ethnocentric reactions to the new foods that were brought back from the Americas. They quickly adopted the new beans, because they were similar to some European varieties, but the stranger, unfamiliar foods, like tomatoes and potatoes, were viewed with suspicion and even assumed to be poisonous. The description of body images in The Cultural Feast takes a cultural relativism viewpoint, describing the health and beauty values that led traditional Polynesians to prefer fat bodies. We may not agree that obesity is beautiful, but we can try to understand how the Polynesians can see it that way.


Answer 2

  • Ethnocentrism: viewing others cultures to your culture’s lens and assuming that other cultures are inferior to yours. “The uncritical acceptance of one’s own value system and lifestyle as the most appropriate.” (“Eating is a Cultural Affair,” page 100)

Example: In colonial times, British people looks down on South African people for their Reliance on cassava since it is low in nutrition but didn’t require much cultivation, so they called it the “lazy man’s crop” and discouraged its cultivation. This reduced food security a bit, etc. (“Eating is a Cultural Affair,” page 100)


  • Cultural Relativism: (reverse of ethnocentrism) Viewing each culture as adequately equal to each other in value and vests understandable within its own set of beliefs and values.

Example: Acknowledging that herders benefit from having multiple wives but still finds polygamy unacceptable. (“Eating is a cultural Affair,” page 100)

In Answer 2, The writer uses a list format, giving the definition of the first term and then putting a specific example underneath it then the writer gives the second definition and puts an example underneath that. This list format requires less writing and uses that kind of outline to make clear which example goes with each term.  some instructors might welcome this abbreviated answer format, but others may prefer a fully written answer like Answer 1. Before you use an abbreviated answer format, ask your instructor whether or not it will be acceptable.

Checking the answer.

Re-read Assignment 1. Then look at Answer 2 and discuss whether or not the answer fully answers all parts of the question.



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Writing from Readings: Definitions and Examples Copyright © 2020 by Carol Lynn Moder is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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