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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 Them

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 Literature."

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 Doc's studies?

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 bucks.

The Repeating-What-Everybody-Knows Trap

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 clothing.

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 sales.

© Copyright 2002, Beth Fowler

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