On Roswell, Research, and Reliability, or the Importance of Research

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


Tips

  1. 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.
  1. Visit your local university or college libraries to access their research databases and locate peer-reviewed, reliable sources.
  1. 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.
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The One Page Synopsis

Now that you’ve written your query letter and performed your research on the different agents and publishers who might be interested in your story, you learn that some require a one page synopsis. Wondering what that is, you then do more research, discovering that this new task means concisely summarizing your 50,000-100,000 word story in roughly 500-600 words! At first glance, the task looks impossible, but it is not.

Since the synopsis is a condensation of your completed novel, consider it an important step in getting your story published. If you don’t do a good job here, your novel will be passed over. The easiest and most productive way to begin drafting your synopsis is to outline your novel chapter-by-chapter. Then succinctly write down the “Big Picture” of your story (i.e. what it’s all about) in one to two sentences. Finish your outline by noting the motivations, problems, and end goals of the main character(s) and antagonist(s).

Once you have all this down, divide your outline into the categories beginning, middle, and end, with an eye for the dramatic arc as well. The dramatic arc depicts the chronological order of events that most narratives tend to follow and can easily be separated into beginning, middle, and end.

DramaticArc-300x230

Image credit: “Writing Stories Your Learners Will Savor” by Claudia Escribano http://c2portal.com/blog/?p=108

The beginning section includes the introduction of the main character(s) and his/her/their problems, the setting, the antagonist (external or internal), and the inciting action. The middle then details all points of rising action. These are not subplots or minor details, but two or three main points of action without which the story could not reach its climax. Basically, these are the turning points in the story of action and in characters. Finally, your end section should include the climax and denouement (the unveiling and resolution, how everything ties together), with a mention of how your characters progressed.

With your story outline completed, compile everything into an engaging summary. Since it’s a first draft, don’t worry about length, but instead focus on getting everything laid out. You can cut at a later date.

Now, draft done, set it aside for a week or two. When you come back to it, re-read with the intention of revising for clarity and brevity. Since it’s only one page, make each word count. Make each word work hard for its place in your synopsis. You will most likely re-work entire sentences and the entire draft several times. This is fine and completely normal. In the end, it should read like an extremely brief, well-told and engaging version of your story.

Once you’ve rewritten your synopsis and fit it into one page, take it to several other discerning, objective and honest people to read. If they are confused or bored, take note. Ask them for suggestions and weave their suggestions into your rewriting. However, if your readers love it, that’s great! It’s time to send it out.

Synopsis Format: First, carefully review each agent or publisher’s specifications. Synopses need to follow a specific format as specified by each agent or publisher. However, there are some general principles: it should be written in the present tense from the 3rd person point of view and only name three main characters, as more will confuse your readers. Further, the synopsis should be typed in Times New Roman font size 12 with a 1″ margin all around. In the header or first line, write “Synopsis of Title, Genre, Word Count, by Name.”

In the long run, synopsis writing can be challenging, but highly rewarding. It will help to hone your writing skills overall, as well as help to get your story published.

Next week’s topic: Research for Different Types of Writing

Taglines, Blurbs, and Book Specs: How to Write Fiction and Non-Fiction Query Letters

Amazingly enough, you’ll probably write your query letter to agents and the handful of remaining publishers accepting unsolicited submissions more times than you rewrote the manuscript. Good thing a letter is so much shorter!

A query letter is short—a mere 250-400 words consisting of a “hook,” summary, manuscript specifications, and an author biography.

Eek!

That’s quite a lot of information to convey in only a handful of words. Your ability to do so, and do so well, however, alerts agents and publishers to the fact that you are a stellar writer. Exactly what they’re looking for in fact. That’s why mastering query letter writing is so crucial.

The first step is to transform how you think about writing. Instead of writing more, write less. Instead of adding, cut. The object of a query letter is to portray the essence of your writing—tone, style, plot, and characters for fiction pieces; and tone, style, problems, and answers for non-fiction pieces—in an engaging way that makes your readers want to bite. Just like in advertising.

And, just like in advertising, you’ll begin with something that will pique the interest of someone inundated with query letters—someone reading hundreds or even thousands of queries a month. This is the hook, or “tagline” for your manuscript. Your tagline should be a short statement or rhetorical question that causes your readers to think, Hm, I might like to read that. Let me look into this some more, just as the taglines on a movie poster make you want to check out what a movie is about. So make your tagline both memorable and interesting. Also, make sure to include the title of your novel. Just like commercials frustrate viewers when they don’t know what the product is until the last second, a tagline without this important bit of information leaves your readers floundering.

From the hook, you move into the summary. Calling it a summary is somewhat deceptive, as it is more like the blurb on the back of a book than an unimaginative summary you’d read on Sparknotes or Wikipedia. Remember, this is advertising, and you’re trying to persuade someone to read your book. So go and look at the blurb that caused you to pick up the stray book that became your favorite. Generally, blurbs reveal just enough about the characters and plot to emotionally connect a prospective reader to what’s happening, or mention enough of the findings and writer’s tone to whet a reader’s curiosity to know more. Your summary, then, should walk a fine line between too little and too much information, while at the same time, conveying the tone of your manuscript.

Now you’re on to book specifications. This includes the title, word count, and genre of your manuscript. You need all of these items as they explain to the agent or editor reading your query that this is something they’re interested in and have a market for. (Hint: If they specify word count, make sure yours is within the range, and so forth.) Additionally, try to pull out some comparable stories. What books, TV shows, movies, etc. influenced your writing and tone? Is your book Rick Riordan meets Die Hard? If so, state that. Have you answered the question that millions of people are asking about why the chicken crossed the road? Good, give those stats. Publishing is, after all, a business, and agents and publishers need to know that there’s an existing market for what you’ve written.

Finally, you need to provide a short biography, which tells agents and publishers why you’re qualified to write about what you’ve written. This does not mean telling them about the essay contest you won in fifth grade, but instead briefly outlining your current writing credits and background (as it applies to your manuscript). If you have no such credits yet, you can always begin to develop them by submitting articles or short stories to credible magazines, journals, contests, etc., or simply forgo writing a bio—although this is not recommended.

Overall, writing a query letter is quite challenging, but it is also rather fun. Especially when you know you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. So good luck and enjoy!

(Next week: The One Page Synopsis)


Query Letter Writing Tips

  1. Query writing is like business writing, in that you are demonstrating that you are not only a good writer but also a professional. As such, keep your tone polite and recall the rules of business letter etiquette.
  2. If you browse through Chuck Sambino’s “Successful Queries” on the Writer’s Digest website—which I highly recommend—then you’ll see one consistency: each agent is enamored by a query letter for a different reason. There is no surefire way to win a contract other than good, intriguing writing that follows each agent or publisher’s specifications.
  3. Intensively revise and rewrite your query letter. Your query is how you get your foot in the door to display your wares (manuscript), so it needs to be a strong pitch. The best way to do this is to take the time you need to write it—not a day, not a week. Let other people read it. Get objective advice and criticism. Write multiple drafts. Polish it and love it as much as you did your manuscript. All of this effort is bound to pay off and work in your favor.

Never Fall in Love with Your First Draft: Learning the Importance of the Rewriting Process

My 7th grade language arts teacher had a red poster of a lion hugging a piece of paper as little pink hearts floated around his mane. Below the lion were the words NEVER FALL IN LOVE WITH YOUR FIRST DRAFT. I (obviously) never forgot that image but at the time I thought it meant reading a draft over once—or twice if I was being really good—before hitting print or send. In actuality, it means making time for the work of rewriting. When I figured this out, my first thoughts were: Psh! That’s too much work and my stuff’s great first time ‘round!

No, it wasn’t, and it still isn’t.

So, instead of falling victim to one of the classic blunders, don’t fall in love with your first draft and learn to rewrite. Like me, the first thing you’ll have to figure out is: what is rewriting?

Rewriting is an integral and intensive part of the writing process that deals with the adding, deleting, and rearranging of words, phrases, sentences, entire paragraphs, and (in some very distressing cases) the entire paper or manuscript. This is called revising when it’s minor and rewriting when it’s a major overhaul. So how do we rewrite?

Step One

Take a break. After that first draft has been written, put it aside for at least a day. The more time you have between the first draft and rewriting, however, the better, and I recommend at least a week.

Step Two

Now that an acceptable amount of time has passed, you can come to your piece with fresh, objective eyes. Read it over, noting any point where you are confused, where information is missing, or something just doesn’t work. Say, a character’s behavior is inconsistent or you pulled in evidence that hurts your argument. These need to be fixed. Do this several times with short breaks in between each reading session.

Step Three

Once you can read the piece over without stopping a million times to make corrections, take it to someone else to read. Preferably, read it aloud to that person, because then you’ll hear the nonsense coming out your own mouth, be quite surprised at how erudite you sound, or, more likely, flip-flop between the two.

Step Four

Rewrite again, having caught all of the pieces that don’t make sense, need to be expanded, or are superfluous. Once you get to the point where you’re no longer making major changes but minor ones, you’ve hit revising. If you have time, have someone else look it over again, but if not, read it once or twice more and then send it off.


Tips

  1. “Kill Off the Little Darlings”: These are the pieces of writing that we perceive as (or know to be) little strokes of brilliance that just don’t fit no matter how hard we try. Delete them mercilessly. They will never fit. Trust me, I’ve tried.
  2. Print a hardcopy: Reading something on a computer screen generally leads to two things: distraction (chess! Wikipedia! Netflix!) and a focus on the small picture. A hardcopy, however, keeps our focus longer while also emphasizing the big picture that rewriting is all about.
  3. Time:The more important the project is to you, the more time you want to put between drafts and the more work you’ll want to put into rewriting. For instance, I never worked on a grad paper longer than a week (sans research), but I worked on my Master’s thesis for a year because I put at least a month in between finishing a chapter and picking it back up again and this had to happen several times.
  4. Accept Criticism: We all want to cry, scream, and/or sink into a hole when we hear criticism on our writing. However, nine times out of ten, the critic is right. But we only see this when we’ve gone back to the draft after time. Then you think, “Yup, that jerk was right. Well damn.” After accepting this disappointment, make the recommended changes and rewrite some more.
  5. Don’t over think it: You CAN overwork a piece of writing. This is another reason why you need time in between rewriting sessions. It will keep you from overworking something and having to dig out an old copy of the draft, because once it’s overworked, there’s little hope.

How to Write the Dreaded Literature Review

Many students balk at the idea of writing a literature review for the first time. After all, it’s a completely new form of writing, which in turn makes it look like a daunting monster of epic proportions. However, they’re surprisingly easy once you have:

  1. A thesis, or some formulation of an argument
  2. Read (or skimmed, much preferable) pertinent research
  3. Done more research
  4. Organized your research by topic/subject

So, lit reviews require lots of legwork, but once all that wondrous fun stuff is (mostly) done, you can move on to the easy part: writing (yes, I’m serious).

Anyway, on to the all-important question: how to write a lit review.

Step 1

Since nobody ever wants to dive into the actual writing, make things easy on yourself by starting with section headings. For instance, if I am writing a paper on the necessity of introducing sharks to my local lake because sharks are dynamic parts of aquatic ecosystems, then I have probably done research on sharks, their habitats, theories/methods for introducing animals to new ecosystems, ecosystems in general, etc. To start writing, I then bold out each section on my paper (Methods for Introducing New Species, How Awesome Sharks Are, Sharks and Lakes), list the sources or authors that I think belong under each section, and roughly how many pages I plan to write for each.

Step 2

Now that I’ve wasted as much time as possible creating the layout for my lit review, it’s actually time to start writing. So I glance over my sections and decide that the one I know the most about or have the most information on is “How Awesome Sharks Are.” This isn’t the beginning of my review in the least, but that’s okay. It’s the one I’ve read all the research on—after all, I could still be looking into methods for introducing species to  new ecosystems—so I can write on it with the most authority. I’ll go back to the beginning later (and still write a surprisingly coherent research paper).

Step 3

Now that I have decided that I’m going to talk about how awesome sharks are, I have two choices, I can either start discussing the author who agrees with me that sharks are awesome, or the one who points out that sharks are carnivorous and will most likely destroy an ecosystem that they don’t actually belong in. It really depends on whether I want to disqualify the research of one, or formulate a new theory altogether. So, under my chosen heading, I would begin with the author I disagree with, slowly working my way to the author I agree with through connecting links of research that strengthen the position of my argument. However, if I wanted to formulate a new method for introducing species, as I do under another section, I would begin with my strongest source and create interlinking arguments from each research point that then builds into my new method/theory for introducing sharks to lakes.

Step 4

Now that I have decided which author/source I’m going to start with, I rely on my amazing skills of summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting to explain the argument/methodology/theory/etc. of my source, describe what the author brings to the table, and just generally point out whether or not said scholar is right or wrong (usually by pointing to another scholar or an integral flaw in his or her reasoning). Once I’ve done all this for one source/scholar, I simply repeat. And repeat. And repeat until done.


Tips

  1. If you completed an annotated bibliography prior to starting your research paper, use that as your jumping off point. I’ve had many friends for whom this method has worked. They simply took the information from their annotated bibs and expanded it in the lit review.
  2. Remember, in a literature review, you’re just presenting the research that has come before, not trying to argue your thesis. This means that you’re just laying the groundwork for the rest of your essay, not actively trying to prove your point just yet.
  3. To best construct connections between sources, pretend that they’re in conversation with one another—after all, they are in a way. For example, so-and-so made this point, yet blank makes this point. This helps your lit review to flow logically and allows your sources to begin arguing your thesis for you.
  4. Most writers tend make the exact same argument. This means that in your lit review you can list them together to save space and time (and meet any professor quotas on how many sources you need). Ex. John Smith in TITLE and Harry Jones in his work TITLE argue that sharks are integral members of any ecosystem, therefore supporting the relevance of introducing sharks to lakes.
  5. You don’t have to list all of your sources—not even all the ones plan to use—just the important ones that really inform your argument. Or as many as you’ve been told to provide. Always listen to what your professors want.