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Here’s today’s post, on the importance of research.
I spent twelve years as senior editor at an indie publishing house (meaning independent, not Indianapolis, where, incidentally, I lived from 1991 to 1995). I saw many howlers in the novels submitted by semi-professional writers. My two favorites:
2) In order to get to Tehran from Paris you have to fly over the Atlantic ocean. (In the map below, black shows Paris to Tehran via the Atlantic; red shows a slightly more direct route.)
But why always Paris?
In any case, if you want to be thought of as a serious writer, you must do your research!
Don’t know where to start? The following are some tips to help you begin.
By far the most popular research tool in the world today is Google. I recommend it with many reservations, the first being that it is full of misinformation being circulated throughout cyberspace, eventually ending up as The Truth. Be skeptical during your Google searches, and try to find reputable sources for the information you seek.
Here are some Google search tips and tools. Special thanks to my friends and colleagues Avishai Magence and Ita Olesker.
1. It’s better to search an exact phrase. In order to do this, put the phrase in quotation marks. For instance, if you search “What a Piece of Work Is Man” you will get 152,000 results with that exact wording; if you search What a Piece of Work Is Man, without the quotes, you will get 217,000,000 results of all kinds with the words piece, work, and man in them. You will also get plenty of results with the words Hamlet and Shakespeare.
2. To search for books, use Google Books. You might be able to get the full text of a book, which is great when you need to quote a source. Click on Books (in the line under the Google search box). You can also Google Advanced Book Search, which allows you to refine your search. For example, you can search for books published by a specific publisher. (Thanks to my friend Debbie for this tip.)
3. To search for scholarly works, journal articles, etc., use Google Scholar (type Google Scholar into the search box). This is also good for finding the exact, accurate, scientific name for something.
4. To narrow or limit a search, you can use the minus sign. For example, if you search for jaguar speed (intending the large cat), you will get a lot of results about the car also. If you type in jaguar speed -car (with no space after the minus sign), you will eliminate all the results with the word car in them, and get only (or primarily) cats. To limit the search even further, you would type in jaguar +cat -car, which should find all the sites that include the words jaguar and cat but do not include the word car.
5. Search in Google Advanced Search by typing Advanced Search into the search box. As with Advanced Book Search, it enables you perform a more refined search.
6. Safe search setting. For those of you who love the internet but hate the filth, click on the gear button, top right of screen, and then click on Turn on SafeSearch. Or, click on Option in the gear button, and then click on Search on the left side of the new screen, and go in from there. This will give you the option to Lock SafeSearch. Theoretically, this will cut down on undesirable images. (You can set YouTube on safe mode too. At the bottom of the YouTube page, click on the button that says Restricted Mode and set it to “on.”)
7. Wildcards. Use an asterisk as a fill-in-the-blank.
Example: search for “see this email * below” (note that the phrase must be inside of quotation marks). This will give you results that say: see this email correspondence below; see this email screen capture below; see this email in your inbox below; see this email exchange below, etc.
8. Searching for a particular subject on a specific site. Use the characters site: in the search box. For example, Jacqueline Kennedy site: New York Times will show you the places where Jacqueline Kennedy is mentioned in the New York Times before it lists any other sources.
9. Incognito search. Hit control-shift-n and you will be able to log on anonymously. Among other advantages, your search will not be recorded in the Google history (and don’t tell anyone, but you can read unlimited articles on the New York Times website, which usually limits non-member viewing to ten articles per month).
10. Searching for Images. Enter the name of what you want into the search box, using some of the above methods, and click on Images (in the line under the search box). Then click on Search Tools (also in the line under the search box), and specify size, color, etc. Click on Usage Rights on that same line, and choose the appropriate platform (noncommercial, commercial, etc.).
I count usage under research. It is essential that your spelling and grammar are correct, as well as your diction. Remember: whether you are writing articles, writing a book, or writing just about anything really, you will look unprofessional (and, unfortunately, you will be unprofessional) if you haven’t gotten the nuts and bolts of the language down. For example:
- Is there a clear cut distinction between Hillary and Bernie, or is it a clear-cut distinction? Or perhaps it’s clearcut. The dictionary is your best friend. You should never be without it. It should sit right next to your computer, or a site such as Merriam-Webster should be open at all times.
- Would you say: “Former President Charles de Gaulle was once heard to remark, ‘How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?'” or would you say: “Former president Charles de Gaulle was once heard to remark, ‘How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?'” Put aside the weighty issue of governing such a country (Paris, again) and go to The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, chapter 8, sections 18 and 20. This is another tool you cannot afford to be without. If you prefer it online, it costs $35 per year.
- Prophecy or prophesy? Stationary or stationery? Who or whom? Then or than? For words such as these it’s usually back to the dictionary or Chicago. Make sure you are using your words correctly, as it could be a life-or-death matter. Here’s an example:
“I’m going to proscribe penicillin,” said Dr. Google.
What Do the Experts Say?
When writing an article, you might need either a quote from someone in the field about which you are writing or simply some background information in order to make your piece credible. Go to the experts.
Stay with me, writers of novels. This one’s for you, too.
You probably know – or know someone who knows – experts in a variety of fields. And if you don’t, writers’ forums and listserves are fabulous resources. On the writers’ forum I belong to, not a day goes by where someone doesn’t ask to speak with “fathers of special needs children” or “women who went through a divorce.”
Don’t be afraid to contact experts, or even just someone who has information you don’t have. Most will be happy to help. People love to be consulted; don’t you? (One of my favorite moments last year was when my daughter called me up and said, “I need your advice.” I almost dropped the phone.)
By the way, for many of the people you consult it will be a win-win situation if you include their website or mention a few books or articles they’ve written.
Fiction writers ahoy! In order to avoid those unmentionable situations where you are just about to give your character a cesarean section but don’t know where to make the first cut, speak to an OB, for crying out loud. You don’t want to be sued for literary malpractice.
Writing Isn’t Only about Writing
Rigorous research makes you and your writing credible. It fleshes out and enhances your work, making it sparkle and giving it the realistic feel all writing needs.
Getting the details right allows your writing to rise to the top of the gatekeeper’s inbox like cream separating from raw milk.
Don’t be left with the dregs on the bottom of the pail.
What other resources have been helpful to you when researching a subject for your writing? Let us know in the comments here, or shoot me an email.
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