How to Use Research for Better Writing (and Credibility)
Almost all writers rely on research for facts and information. Even fiction writers and memoir authors, whose work is either made up from imagination or based on personal experience, will turn to research to fill in holes and answer questions.
We use writing resources like dictionaries and style guides. We use encyclopedias and reference books, articles from scholarly journals, and we rely on historical facts and data collected by researchers so we can write truthfully and honestly. We also use Google (and some of us use Wikipedia), and we use blogs and other material found online. All of this research is supposed strengthen our work and lead to more credible, better writing.
We absorb this information and then spit it back out in the words we write. Then people come along and read our words. Maybe they go off and repeat what they’ve read. Maybe they rehash our material in a blog post of their own. Maybe they use it in an academic paper or perhaps it inspires a poem or a short story. The information itself is constantly making rounds, getting processed, filtered, and regurgitated. How are we to sift through it all to find reliable facts? How do we tell the truth from the lies?
The Information Age
We are currently bombarded with information. It’s more accessible than ever before in history — millions of facts can be yours with a few keystrokes and the click of a button. Yet oddly, misinformation seems to be spreading more rampantly than ever. It’s becoming less and less common for sources to be cited, and Darren Rowse of Problogger recently noticed that external links (which are a form of citation) are an endangered species.
I find the spread of misinformation grossly irresponsible (it’s one of my pet peeves). We are so connected and there are so many ways to get the facts straight, there is really no excuse for it. I’m not talking about misunderstanding or making a mistake — I’m talking about either knowingly repeating things that are untrue or failing to get facts straight before reporting or repeating them.
But what does this have to do with you, as a writer? How does responsible research (or lack thereof) reflect on a writer’s credibility, and how does solid research and the use of legitimate citations lead to better writing?
Solid Research — The Path to Better Writing
It can be difficult to know when research is required to back up the facts. There are some things that we know from life experience or from working in a particular field over a long period of time. Other things are simply common knowledge. And much writing today involves doling out advice (tips) based on personal experience (that’s pretty much the entirety of the blog you’re reading right now).
But when you’re presenting any historical data, including statistics, or quoting sources, you have a responsibility to get the facts straight and to cite them.
Citations are important for a few reasons. First, a citation gives your readers an opportunity to look further into the topic. Second, you are giving credit where credit is due — to whoever compiled the facts for your use. Third, by citing your sources, you are showing your own work to be responsibly researched and therefore credible and accurate.
Online Research and Citation
I want to take a minute here to address research and citation on the Internet, where these practices are sorely lacking (particularly on blogs). Online, there is an added component of citation, which is to include a link back to your source. Even if your research comes from a book or magazine, you could link to the author’s website or to the book’s page in an online store (such as Amazon) so readers can take a look.
We can get into a whole discussion about how links are Internet currency and it’s considered polite or ethical to link to your sources. There are a boatload of benefits that come from using external links. Among these, building relationships with other writers or bloggers, but perhaps more importantly, making it easy for your readers to follow the information trail.
In any case, we all need to be conscious of link inclusion. After all, hyperlinks are what makes the Web go round. I know that I get frustrated when online writers discuss articles or books they’ve read and don’t bother to include titles, links, or any kind of reference. It’s something we should all keep in mind and practice more often.
Let’s Get Curious
Back to research and citations. How do you know when research (and therefore a citation) is required or warranted? Use some common sense and foster a little curiosity. Start by asking questions:
- Did this really happen? Is it true?
- How can I be sure?
- Who compiled this research and are they credible? What are their qualifications?
- Are there any potential conflicts of interest in the reporting?
- Is there any corresponding research to back this up?
- Is there any conflicting research that provides contrast?
If you start firing off questions (yes, be a cynic), you’ll eventually stumble across the answers you’re looking for. Remind yourself daily: question everything.
Here’s What Writers Can Do
- Make a commitment to being a responsible and therefore credible writer.
- Check your work for claims or statements that are debatable or that warrant proof. Are you quoting a person or a text? Are you citing statistics? Are you making a claim?
- Be smart about the research you conduct. Establish credibility of all your sources.
- Double check your facts (and their sources) to see if claims have been countered. Try not to be one-sided.
- Cite your sources in the text, in footnotes, or with a bibliography (for books). On a blog or website, you can include a list of sources at the bottom of your article.
What Readers Can Do
Misinformation is not only the fault of writers and reporters acting irresponsibly. If the audience blindly soaks up information without questioning it, they too bear the burden of responsibility. We all need to be more aware of fact versus fiction.
- Be cynical. Ask questions like: where is the proof?
- Evaluate the sources, if they are provided.
- Do a little googling of your own to see what other facts or opinions are out there.
It’s important for writers to work responsibly. If you’re writing in the nonfiction genre, it pays to get your facts straight. In recent years, some memoir authors have come under heavy fire for changing the details of their own personal experiences in an effort to make their material more enticing. Readers didn’t like that at all and careers were damaged (we’re not going to name any names!).
There will always be irresponsible people and audiences who are willing to hang onto every untrue word they utter or write. You can be one of them if you choose, or you can opt for the ethical route — and be a credible, trusted writer. The choice is yours.
Does credibility matter to you, as a reader and as a writer? Does careful research lead to better writing or is it irrelevant? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment and let’s discuss!