Today’s post is an excerpt from the book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. Enjoy!
“‘Research’ is a wonderful word for writers. It serves as an excuse for EVERYTHING.” — Rayne Hall
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 encyclopedias, reference books, and 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, Wikipedia, and a host of other material found online. All this research is supposed to strengthen our work and lead to better, more credible 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 the 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?
And telling truth from lies is essential in conducting research. Misinformation is widespread, especially on the Internet.
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, the spread of misinformation seems more rampant than ever. It’s becoming less common for sources to be cited and more likely that the so-called facts you read online are just somebody’s beliefs or suspicions.
I find the spread of misinformation grossly irresponsible (it’s one of my pet peeves). There are so many ways to get the facts straight, there is really no excuse for it. I’m not talking about misunderstandings or unintentional mistakes—I’m talking about either knowingly repeating things that are untrue or willfully 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?
Credible Research for Writers
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 online writing (especially in blogs) involves doling out advice based on personal experience.
But when you’re presenting historical data, citing statistics, or quoting sources, you have a responsibility to get the facts straight and in some cases, you should also cite them, especially in nonfiction writing.
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 accurate and credible.
How do you know when research or citations are required or warranted? Use common sense and foster a little curiosity. Start by asking questions. If you’re writing fiction, you don’t need to cite your sources. If you’re writing an academic essay, you do. In fiction and poetry, there is room for make-believe. You can use artistic license and bend reality, but beware of readers with high standards. For example, many science-fiction readers will harp on a book with faulty science. If you know your audience and publishing medium, they should guide how you approach research and citations.
How to Research for Writing
Here are some final thoughts to consider when you’re conducting research:
- Books aren’t the only research materials you can use. Watch documentaries, conduct interviews, and check newspaper and periodical archives.
- 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. Confirm the 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 in a bibliography (for books). On a blog or website, you can include a list of sources at the bottom of your article.