No matter what the form or purpose of writing—whether academic, novel, blog, etc.—research is not only practical but also necessary. In fact, solid research grounds any form of writing. Since you aren’t simply stating an opinion off the top of your head, your words will hold truth. And truth is powerful. Even in the various fiction genres, including sci-fi and fantasy, it’s the true bits that add color to the story and make it compelling.
Moreover, research fills in knowledge gaps, rids your writing of unhealthy absolutes, and strengthens your critical thinking processes, which in turn affects how and what you write. Learning how to perform research, then, is crucial to developing as a writer.
Research is not something we instinctively know how to perform, and, like most things worth knowing, it takes time to develop the necessary discernment between what’s good information and what’s not. Thanks to the pervasive nature of the internet, all of us have a basic grasp of how to perform an online search, but there’s a vast difference between googling “travel tips for safaris” and researching to learn something well enough to write on it convincingly. It’s the difference between wanting to know more about Roswell UFO sightings because I’m a little interested in aliens and deciding to write a novel set in Roswell during 1947 or writing a scholarly piece on the sociological role Roswell has played in the belief of the existence of UFOs in the United States.
While the first definitely encourages the latter two, it will not offer enough credible or reliable information to write anything that is not based on rumor and speculation. The difference between a reliable source and an unreliable source is the difference between truth and make-believe. Unreliable sources are filled with skewed data, unchecked “facts,” and leaps of reality. Alternately, reliable sources generally maintain high standards of scholarship and factuality.
Once you begin to research your topic—be it Batman or Einstein—you’ll soon be able to compare and contrast the differences in the nature and quality of information. However, the best way to begin judging facts versus opinion is to (1) examine the author’s background in the field, (2) note whether the author is making unsupported assertions or wild leaps in logic (ex. “So-and-so spoke fondly of this person, so they obviously had an affair,” or, “Since we can’t see gravity, it doesn’t exist”), and (3) question the source: does it come from a reliable publisher, scholarly journal, or site? Has it been peer reviewed?
To begin researching, then, you’ll first need to narrow down your search terms. Let’s go back to Roswell for a moment and say I’m going to go ahead and write that novel. “Roswell” alone is too broad a search term. I will need to outline specifics of what I want and need to know (which, of course, depends on what I want to write). For example, I might need to know about life in 1947, the Air Force, the investigation, etc. I’d also need to decide who my main character will be, and fill in background information on him or her. Will he or she be a journalist, police officer, or a bobbysoxer? What were each of these people like, what were their mindsets, how did they speak, what would their daily activities be?
If I chose to write the scholarly piece, however, I’d not only need to know the history of supposed UFO crashes and sightings but also how Roswell became known as a UFO crash site. What projected the incident in Roswell from a small-town event at the back of the public consciousness to a full-blown “government conspiracy,” and so on? Since my study would be from a sociological standpoint, I’d need to find confirmed reports and interviews of persons affected by the phenomenon, including well-documented case studies and research.
Once you’ve narrowed down your key terms, it’s time to perform multiple searches in research databases, library catalogs, and on the Internet (particularly Google Scholar). Sift through the search results by titles, abstracts, and summaries. Since right now you’re only compiling data, it helps to create a desktop folder to save whatever you want to further investigate. Also, don’t stop looking after the second page of results. What may be most useful to you may not be in the top ten or twenty search results.
Once that’s done, it’s time to start sorting through the articles. Glance through the first few paragraphs to categorize them according to their merit, such as “Useless” (which you trash), “Possibilities” (which may contribute to your research), and “Important” (self-explanatory).
Once sorted, begin to read and highlight/underline and take notes. Note-taking helps you to process all that data and to assimilate ideas so as to generate your own perspective on the topic.
On the whole, research is necessary and can be a very rewarding learning experience.
Next week: Why We Write Everyday
- Read everything with a grain of salt. People are imperfect—which is wonderful—but that means we make mistakes, draw wrong conclusions, and sometimes decide our opinions are gospel truth.
- Visit your local university or college libraries to access their research databases and locate peer-reviewed, reliable sources.
- When researching, be wary of getting lost “down the rabbit hole.” Gathering a lot of sources is good, but there’s such a thing as too much. Know when to stop—generally when you know what an author will say before he or she says it—and don’t let researching stop you from writing. Begin drafting what you can with the intent of returning later to flesh out what you don’t currently know.