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Did You Check Your Homework?
by Beth Fowler
You've seen those little boxes that say,
"Correction" or "Retraction" or "Oops, we goofed!" Correction notices diminish a
publication's standing, not to mention the author's credibility and future job
prospects. Secretly you think, "Whew! Sure glad I didn't write that article with
the error." And you wonder, "How can I avoid a slipup like that?"
Whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction,
research feeds the imagination, girders your knowledge base and puts backbone in
your product. Writers conduct three kinds of research:
1. Legwork - gallivanting all over creation
capturing impressions and info.
2. Peoplework - mining quotable jewels from
witnesses, experts and key players.
3. Homework - scouring books, newspapers,
magazines, brochures, reports, archives, private collections, the 'brary and the
'Net at sites like http://encarta.msn.com/reference.
Homework is especially riddled with booby traps.
Trip over one, and sales fizzle out. On the other hand, avoid research traps and
editors grow to trust you to dig up, select, interpret and weave facts and data
objectively and accurately into manuscripts. You'll gain a reputation as an
ethical writer. Visit http://www.sabew.org/sabew.nsf/ethics?OpenView
for writers' codes of ethics.
While even the best writers occasionally
misreport researched info, novice writers are more vulnerable to making
unintentional mistakes. Sidestepping booby traps requires knowing where they're
hidden and doing the homework.
Traps and How to Step Around
The Becoming-a-Mouthpiece Trap
Example: A journalist writing a feature about
a new medicine contacts the company that patented the drug. The company's
public relations weenie Fed Ex's glossy brochures and factsheets sprinkled
with Latin terms and charts highlighting the drug's development and its
manifold benefits to humankind. The journalist writes his article
incorporating info solely from those documents.
Homework: Research multiple sources. The
journalist must uncover facts the PR rep doesn't want divulged to the public.
(Every closet contains a skeleton or three, otherwise there's no story.) In
journalism this is "balance."
Our journalist needs to check out Who has
something at stake? (Stockholders, the drug company's competition.) Whose
experience or perspective might be divergent? (Lab employees, people who
trialed the drug, natural therapy advocates.) Who has info, but wasn't asked
for it? (Medical writers, pharmacists, doctors, peer reviewers, government
agencies.) Who parroted "party line" responses and can be probed with deeper
questions? (The PR rep, the CEO.) Researching information from adversaries,
skeptics, watchdogs, regulatory agencies and nitpickers leads to balance.
Click http://cancerguide.org/research.html for "How to Research Medical
The Ignoring-the-Moneybags Trap
Example: Researching material for an article
about bread, I found this assertion, "Dr. Graeme McIntosh says, 'We ought to
be eating wholemeal or high-fiber breads with every meal, about four to five
slices a day, besides our breakfast cereal.' " Sound the alarms. Who funded
Homework: Further research revealed that the
Grains Research and Development Corporation (surprise, surprise) provided
dough for the studies. Published in Australia's New Vegetarian and Natural
Health Magazine, my "Bread: The Staff of Life?" quoted Dr. McIntosh,
named his funding source and included support for opposing opinions that
Western diets contain too much bread. Follow the money. Be wary of biased
Example: Everybody knows that Linda
Eastman-McCartney was heiress to the Eastman-Kodak fortune just like everybody
knows that the Great Wall of China is visible from outer space. Right?
Not quite. Rigorous checking reveals that
Linda's family isn't related to the camera entrepreneur and images of The
Great Wall of China were acquired by the Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C/X-Band
Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR) onboard the space shuttle Endeavor.
That's not peering out the spaceship porthole and seeing a wall down there.
Visit http://www.urbanlegends.com for cock-and-bull stories caught parading in truth's
Homework: "Errors are repeated in newspaper
articles for months and years; cuttings are such a convenient source of
information and deadlines can make checking less rigorous," cautions Brendan
Hennessy in Writing Feature Articles (Focal Press 1993). Sidestep
error hazards by researching info from the original source or as near to the
horse's mouth as you can get so your byline won't appear at http://www.slipup.com/resources.html.
The Playing-Loose-with-Numbers Trap
Example: "Youth want William as next king,"
declared a Reuters headline from London. The lead said, "Britain's youth
believe that dashing young Prince William should be the next king, a survey
published yesterday showed."
In the third paragraph, readers learn that 46
per cent of the surveyed population thinks William should be next monarch.
Hmm. Forty-six per cent is not a majority. The headline could've easily and
more accurately declared, "Youth don't want William as next king."
Homework: Get the original data on which
someone's interpretations have been based. In the case of the future king,
diligent researchers would find out how the survey questions were phrased, how
many youths were surveyed and what ages constitute "youth." For technical
writing, find out how long trials were run, if double-blind controls were run,
if previous trials were proved correct or false and other factors important to
validating data. Even when numbers are correct, check for other facts and
figures that put the numbers in context and might influence interpretation.
Get the stats and learn the lingo used to express them at http://www.statistics.com.
Check it One More Time
Check your final draft critically. Does
researched info address the manuscript's purpose? (Some awesome, hard-won
facts mightn't illuminate theme.) Do facts and data flow naturally within
narrative? Did typos creep in? Did facts and data change between researching
and finishing the piece? Did you avoid emotionally laden words?
Materials that organizations, agencies and
institutes pass out can contain misspellings, grammatical errors and other
bloopers. Verify. Correct.
List resources at the end of non-fiction work,
and if appropriate, of fiction. Editors might want to re-check facts and you
might need the same sources for other projects.
Make sure copyrights aren't infringed upon.
Read up on copyright fair use at http://fairuse.stanford.edu. Generally, ideas and facts (like those in
encyclopedias, dictionaries and reference books) aren't copyrighted. Give
sources for figures. Acknowledge sources from which you've borrowed heavily.
Check your homework. Gain credibility. Make
© Copyright 2002, Beth Fowler
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