The best days are not planned

The best days are not planned by Marcus Hansson via Flikr

I was going to use today’s post to talk about cover design, but I haven’t had time to do any work on my own cover this week. So we’ll save that for Monday.

Instead, I want to touch on one of my favorite parts of writing: research. Here’s five important notes about doing research effectively:

1. Sources

This is the big one. To do effective research, you need effective sources–and you need to be discretionary when you select them. For starters, don’t rely on Wikipedia.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great resource–but it’s not a reliable source. Wikipedia is edited by the general public. While most of the time people will have a vested interest in their contributions–and thus are reasonably accurate–there’s no way for you to know how reliable the contributor is. Maybe they think they know a lot more than they do, or maybe they don’t have an objective viewpoint (see below). Maybe they’re outright lying–there are tons of people who vandalize Wikipedia pages. It’s a great place to start, but you shouldn’t stop your research there.

Instead, you should look for Primary or Secondary sources. A Primary source is an original material, an eyewitness account, or something that was written as an event occurred. For example, if you’re researching Ancient Greek Philosophy, you should be reading Plato and Aristotle’s original works. Quite literally, you go to the source of the topic. This is where you’ll find the most accurate and relevant information.

Then, follow up with your secondary sources. These are commentaries on primary sources. A book written by a philosophy professor discussing the subtext of Plato’s Timaeus, for example. These are valuable sources as well, because they involve interpretation and opinions of the topic in question, and can give you a deeper understanding of the topic. Most of the time, you’ll find many more secondary sources than primary ones, though the primary sources are generally more important.

2.Follow the Leads

This is my favorite part of research. You read your primary source, and the author cites another work–so you look it up. You read that work, and it references another primary source you hadn’t considered. That source mentions your primary source as well, but looks at it from a different angle. Put all three together, and you get a comprehensive “three dimensional” picture of your topic.

Following the lead of a topic can be thrilling. It’s like a treasure hunt. Sources have a way of revealing secrets, or teasing you with ideas that never occurred to you before. It may be that in following the leads in a source, you find a completely different topic that fills a hole or answers a question. Or sometimes the leads go nowhere, and you learn nothing you need to know for your writing. But it’s still a fun trip.

A great example comes from University. I was researching my favorite Shakespeare play, Titus Andronicus, for a paper about the cycle of revenge as presented in the play. For those who don’t know the story, there’s a character named Aaron, who has a baby son; Aaron is captured and executed, but not before his rival Lucius swears to bring up the baby as if it were his own. This is a typical Shakespearean resolution for a protagonist, and completes the cycle of violence.

All very well and good. But in researching, I read a throw-away comment about the BBC Television production of Titus, in which Lucius kills the child anyway. Now it’s a completely different play. I watched the BBC video, and ended up writing a completely different paper, theorizing that this ending makes more sense in the context of Shakespeare’s Senecan influences…but that’s a long story. Suffice it to say, following the lead was the best thing I could have done for that paper.

3. Citation and Credit

This is an easy one. Don’t steal someone else’s work. Even worse is to pretend that you came up with the idea on your own. At best, you’ll draw the ire of the original author; at worst, you’ll be accused of plagiarism. Always reference your sources.

For fiction, this is a bit more relaxed. In a non-fiction book there are specific protocols for citation; in fiction, you don’t need to bother with footnotes and indices. But you should mention your research in a forward or acknowledgements section. Or you could include a “further reading” section which mentioned that these were the books you found helpful in researching your work. You could even give a metaphorical nod by dropping the author’s name in the book itself. Just make sure to give credit where credit’s due.

4. Objectivity and Facets

Another important thing about research is casting a wide net. Don’t go to just one Primary Source (although sometimes there is only one). Read as much as you can from different sources and authors–especially if they have conflicting viewpoints.

That may seem counter productive. Why would you want to read something that’s the opposite of what you read last week? That’ll only confuse you, right? Wrong. What it will do is give you some breathing space, an excuse to step back and come up with your own conclusions about what you’ve read.

If you read three books that claim Mars once had salty oceans and can only find one book that says it was as dry in the past as it is now, you’ve learned two very important things: that the “dry hypothesis” is no longer accepted, or is in the scientific fringe, and that someone out there has a reason to believe the scientific consensus is wrong. Then you ask why that person thinks it’s wrong, and suddenly you have a much more vibrant picture of your topic than you had before.

If everyone agrees on every facet of your topic, it’s not very interesting. Facts are facts, but they don’t paint a picture. You want to find the disagreements; these will lead you to more questions which will breathe life into the topic.

Objectivity is very important here, though. The person who wrote that Mars has always been dry? Maybe he’s writing for a right wing newsletter who believes that the space program is a waste of taxpayer money and wants to dissuade people from finding a reason to go to Mars. If someone writes a scathing attack on a scientific idea without providing any evidence of their own, maybe they have a vested interest in protecting their religious beliefs. (See Dawin vs Creationism…which we will not get into here).

It doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong in these instances; what matters is why they’re writing what they’re writing. If they’re not being objective, it’s probably not a good source.

5.Fact vs Opinion

Which leads into fact vs opinion. When you’re researching, you almost always want to exclusively look for facts. Opinions are fine, but they change from person to person; if you base your research on someone’s specific opinion, it won’t be believable.

This is a can of worms, though, and you have to be careful. Many people will pass off their opinion as fact, and get up in arms if you challenge it. It’s something you really just need to get a feel for, and a lot of it has to do with the objectivity of the author. The bottom line is that your research needs a solid foundation, and you can’t build that on a series of ideas that differ from person to person.

But that’s just my opinion.

How do you do your research? Do you focus on it a lot, or just do enough that you can write comfortably about your topic? Tell us about your research in the comments!

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