How to Research Well, Part Two:
By Evan Braun
Last month, we started a conversation about how to conduct good online research. We focused on a few fundamentals in terms of how to determine whether a website is a good source of information.
Since this is a nuanced and complicated subject, there is a lot more to say about it!
In today’s post, we’ll branch out and consider some broader research tips which will help keep your fact-finding missions on the straight and narrow.
Number one, to the degree that it’s possible, don’t rely on secondhand information. Always track down the original source.
A good (bad?) example of this that I very often encounter in my day-to-day editing concerns the use of quotes. Authors frequently look to add spice to their manuscripts by finding quotes from famous people to back up what they’re writing about.
And there’s nothing wrong with that! I love a good quote.
Issues can arise in how an author chooses to find these quotes. There’s an easy way, and a somewhat harder way. The easy way is to go to one of the dozens of popular quote websites (Brainy Quote, Goodreads, A-Z Quotes, etc.) and search for what you’re looking for. It’s a simple process.
A little too simple.
The problem is that these quote websites are rife with errors. Nobody associated with these sites checks to ensure the quotes’ accuracy, and therefore the phrasing and attribution are often wrong. In some cases, the quote is even credited to the wrong person. And even when these details are correct, the user often has no good sense of where the quote originally comes from.
Because of this, these quote websites are very poor resources. They should only be used to gather ideas, not the actual content. In other words, go ahead and use such a site to find a quote that’s attributed to Martin Luther King Jr., for example—but then go and find the original source of the quote before publishing it in your book.
Otherwise, you’re settling for secondhand information, and secondhand information—as anyone who has ever played a game of Telephone will tell you—is not to be trusted.
Instead, whenever possible, use firsthand sources.
Another important piece of advice is to not become dependent on a single source. Perhaps you’re writing a historical epic, and you’ve found a book about World War Two that has really inspired you. So you read that book very carefully, draw reams of research from it, then use that research to write your own book.
This is a problematic approach. I mean, at least you’ve done some research, and some research is always better than none at all. But the problem with relying on only one source is that, should that source turn out to be wrong, then everything in your book will be wrong as well.
A better approach is to contextualize your research by finding corroborating sources. This hypothetical author could instead seek out three or four books about World War Two, and in the process set themselves on much sturdier footing. You’ll know a piece of information is reliable when multiple sources all agree that it’s true.
Now, if you’ve been through the editing process at Word Alive Press before you’ll know that we take citation very seriously. Our editors will push to ensure that not only are quotes and researched information acknowledged, but that they’re acknowledged in the correct way.
So this next piece of advice is a product of that: when conducting research, use sources that are dedicated to good citation. Good citation is almost always a sign that a piece of writing is being well-vetted.
When you see carefully constructed footnote/endnote citations and an extensive bibliography, you can be fairly confident that the information is trustworthy. Acknowledging one’s sources, and doing it correctly, is a cornerstone of good scholarship.
Finally, and this last one pertains most specifically to information you find on the internet, read beyond the headline. You may have heard the term “clickbait.” This refers to a headline, either for a blog or a news article, that is designed to entice you to click on a link, even if the headline doesn’t accurately represent the content of the article.
So never settle for just the headline. Always read the actual article to make sure you’re getting the whole story.
Also, if you find that a website often makes use of clickbait-style headlines, that’s an indication that the news source may not be the most reliable. When it comes to news and good information, it’s a good practice to trust substance over style.
That’s enough for today—but no, we’re not quite done with this topic yet. Tune back in next month for one more installment in this series on effective research.
Did you enjoy this post? You may also want to read the rest of the series, including part one, Is This Website Legit? and part three, The Most Important Question.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.