Research and Writing: Become an Explorer and Learn As You Go
by Amy O'Quinn
E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” However, we’ve all heard the maxim—write what you know! So which is it? What if we are planning to write about a topic that we really don’t know much about? Do we just toss the idea away and forget about it? Not necessarily. The fact is, that we can become experts (or at least much more informed) about any topic or subject if we are willing to research, put in the hours, and do the work! As Doctorow stated, we become explorers. We start at the beginning, and we learn as we go.
First Things First
The easiest way to learn about a new, or more complex, topic is to start with the basics or a very simplistic overview. For me, this means doing a quick web search. I know that ‘encyclopedia’ sites such as Wikipedia are not acceptable as credible sources, but sometimes the information there does give a jumping off point. It may provide general knowledge and facts such as names, dates, places, etc. And it may also give names of other more reliable sources and books, and even links to other reputable sites and organizations.
I also always gravitate towards the children’s section at the library when I start a new project as well. Children’s authors have a way of putting information into a nutshell—concise and uncluttered. And truly some of the best writers I know are those who write for the juvenile market. So even if I’m writing for an adult audience, my first stop is at the kid section where I know I’ll find great resources and books that will provide me with an easy to understand, overall explanation of my new topic (if age appropriate). Afterwards, I try to find several adult books to fill in some of the more difficult or in-depth details. And I take A LOT of notes as I read, complete with source, author’s name, page numbers, etc. Otherwise, when it’s time to reference a certain fact, I won’t remember where I found it!
Additionally, if I am researching an individual or event from the past, I also try to read several books about the place/location and time period. This can include historical fiction, which I’ve found often does a marvelous job of giving a ‘feel’ for the atmosphere, sentiments, and sensory details.
Primary Sources and Interviews
Once I have a good overview of my new topic, I try to dig even deeper. Since I’m aiming to write what I know, I need to become very familiar with my subject matter. And what’s a better way to foster that familiarity than to get ‘inside’ the head of the person I’m writing about or that of someone who witnessed or experienced a particular event or activity? Autobiographies, journals, documents, photographs, etc.—many of these sources have been preserved through the ages and can provide first-hand accounts of the things I want to know, even if the original author/owner is no longer living. These items give us a glimpse back in time.
If the topic/person I’m writing about is more current, interviews are an excellent way to gain more information. And I’m sure many writers have found that most people are happy and excited to share their stories and information. If I’m unable to record the interview, I try to take detailed notes. I want to quote my source correctly, and professionalism is always in style.
I have found, however, that if I give my interviewees a list of questions or things I want to discuss, the session proceeds more smoothly and I get the information I want since they’ve had more time to recall or think about their answers beforehand.
Participation is Key
Last of all, if my topic pertains to something I can actually ‘do’ or participate in—all the better. I become my own primary source for information. And no one can do a more adequate job of describing those thoughts and experiences than me. Participation definitely adds a new layer of understanding to my writing and a deposit into my knowledge bank about my new subject matter. It certainly allows me to ‘write what I know’ in a whole new way!
Become a Researching and Writing Explorer Today
So what are you waiting for? You can become an expert on your chosen (or assigned) topic or subject matter simply by choosing to be a researching and writing explorer. Jump in with both feet right now, right where you are—and learn as you go!
*Article originally appeared on The Work Writer's Club website HERE.