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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Research Tips and Tools

As a teaching assistant, I answered a lot of questions from a lot of students on a daily basis. One of the questions I was always asked was "How do I find information on _________."

As an author and a nerd, I hear the same question in its many varied forms. How did I find this, where did I find that, can I recommend this or that... whether you're a college student or a writer, research can be a daunting task. It can also be just as critical.

Obviously, writers have a little leeway for creative license that a grad student isn't going to have, but - and this is a big but! - readers notice when the details aren't quite right. If your story is set in the south, readers will expect you to have a good grasp of southern living. If your story is set in 1840 England, your characters probably aren't going to be wearing bikinis and lounging around poolside. If Pearl Harbor was attacked in June instead of December in your novel, you'd better have a darn good explanation for the change!  

I could go on, but you get the point. Details are important, which means research is important. But... where do you start? At this point, we all know how to find Google, or visit the local library, but research can be a little more complicated than that, especially when it comes to finding exactly what you need.

The process is the same whether you're a student or a writer. And it doesn't have to be as frightening as it sounds.

*Identify what you need to know - Not sure exactly what you need to research? Take notes! Highlight information that you're not positive about while you write (or edit), so you can go back later to tweak the details if necessary.

*Narrow your subject - Too much of something can be a bad thing, trust me! There are thousands upon thousands of resources out there, and it can be overwhelming to wade through all of that information if you don't need it. If you're looking for information on Pearl Harbor in a specific period, start there (ie: Pearl Harbor in 1953).  If you can't find what you're looking for that way, broaden the search (Pearl Harbor 1950s, etc).  

*Use key terms - Just because you'd search things one way, doesn't mean everyone else does. Keep that in mind when you're using a search engine, and try different terms. For teen drinking, for instance, you might have teens & alcohol, alcohol abuse & youth, and alcoholism in youth each pull up results that the other terms did not. If your first key term doesn't work, try another. Not sure what other key terms might be used? Try something like Google AdWords Keyword Tool. It will give you a list of popular search terms related to your subject.

*Save your research - There is nothing more frustrating that finding a great resource only to lose it when you're ready to start writing or editing. And remember: just because a website is available today, doesn't mean it will be next week. If you find something you want to go back to later, don't just bookmark it. Print or save a copy, and back the information up. Make notes on books you need to look at, or articles you want to read... find a system that works for you, and use it. 

*Evaluate your resources - If you went to college, you probably perfected the art of bullshitting your way through papers. Remember that other people did, too. Just because a website (or book) says something, doesn't mean it's true. Don't believe Joe's word that he's an expert in forensic anthropology just because he sounds like he knows what he's talking about. Double check the information against other sources before using it because, again, readers will notice if you're wrong. The last thing you want is Sandy to write an Amazon review telling everyone how horrible the book is because your research was utter crap and is nowhere close to accurate.

*Understand primary and secondary resources - If Bob says something and Tom quotes it, Bob is the primary resource. Tom is the secondary. Don't just assume that Tom quoted Bob reliably, because he probably didn't. Check out the primary source yourself to confirm the authenticity of the information before you use it.

*Steer clear of biased resources - These are resources published with an agenda. For instance, if I'm trying to convince you that Red Bull is healthy... chances are everything I say is going to support that opinion. That doesn't make it true. As with secondary resources, things can be taken out of context to support my point. Always be mindful of that, and remember that your readers will be, too.

*Ask for help - If you're not sure if a resource is accurate or not, ask for help. Fellow authors, professionals, and hobbyists are a great source of information. That's not to say you should always take their word as fact. We can be wrong, too. But, at the very least, you'll walk away with an idea of where to start (or who to avoid in the future).

*Not all information is created equal - While websites like Wikipedia, Gather, Associated Content and Suite101 can be a great way to locate initial information, you have to remember that anyone can edit Wikipedia, and that you don't have to be an expert or have the credentials to write for these other sites, either. This means that the information may or may not be accurate. In academia, these resources are not permitted by most professors for this very reason. Fiction writing is a little more lenient, but if you're going to use these websites, be aware of the realities and double check the information before taking it as gospel!

*Cite, Cite, Cite - If you didn't say it, don't use it (that's called plagiarism and is not okay). If you do use it (say you quote Byron), cite it (it takes all of thirty seconds to find a way to work in Byron's name into dialogue). If John down the street taught you everything you know about drug trafficking, acknowledge him, whether that's an official acknowledgement in the book, a shoutout on your blog, or a plate of cookies and a thank you note. It's just bad form to take all the credit for something you had help with.

Don't forget to check out my Resources for Writers post as well!


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