How to Research
Research is an interesting topic to discuss when it comes to writing. Some writers will spend months—if not longer—researching the minute details of every aspect of their novel, while others will just make it up as they go along. Both are fine approaches, but research into a specific topic can add a great deal of depth to whatever it is you’re writing.
Researching topics is not always as simple as it first seems and where to look largely depends on what type of information you need. There are some general guidelines, however, that can help get you started.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Wikipedia, as long as you don’t treat the information on there as gospel. If you’re looking for the gist of a topic or just want some very basic information, it’s a handy resource. Personally, I like that the pages have extensive links to relevant topics. For instance, I’ve been researching Neolithic culture and I’ve primarily been doing that using Wikipedia as a starting point. It will reference another related topic and I can just open the link in a new tab to read through everything on that topic as a whole, instead of Googling multiple things. But, as I said, it’s really only good for the gist of a topic. If that’s all you need, great, but if you need more in depth or more reliable information then you will have to progress to something a bit better.
Google has easy access to just about any information you could want to find. However, much like Wikipedia, it is not great for in depth or completely factual information. This is simply because you can Google a topic and find a blog post about something that looks like a very definitive resource but is actually just a random person writing their understanding of something. It’s really good for finding opinions, but it requires a bit of practice to weed the facts from the opinions if that’s what you’re after.
Google Scholar is a handy way to Google things that you need factual information for. It takes a bit of getting used to and you’ll have to pay for some things that it comes back with. But, ultimately, it’s Google that only looks at scholarly literature, so you can have more confidence that the information you find is accurate. At the time the publication was released anyway. Research from the seventies may not still hold true today.
I use the NHS website for information on medical conditions. It has enough information on treatment and symptoms for my needs. If I need extra information I will Google a specific element of that and try and stick around medical websites or posts written by professionals in the industry. I’ve done quite a bit of research into a particular psychological treatment and most of what I’ve got has come from blog posts written by people who practice said treatment. I use government websites for things pertaining to that, such as how the prison system works or what the punishment for certain crimes are. Most things will have an overarching body that you can find information from; if they don’t there is usually a definitive place where people go to find information and that can mostly be found quite easily.
Forums still exist. Facebook groups have a very varied membership, and other sites like Reddit will give you access to thousands of people who may be able to answer your questions. This method, however, is the most unreliable. People lie, people are wrong, and things are different depending on where you’re from. For instance, I was looking into what weapons prison guards use in the UK as I wasn’t sure if they had guns or not. I was pretty sure that they didn’t but thought I’d double check. I came across a forum full of people who were very adamant that UK prison guards did use guns, even going into details about what types and a lot of them claimed to have worked in the prison system. It didn’t take long to find another, more credible source that said that they don’t. So, don’t take anything you read from people on the internet at face value. Always try and find a couple of different sources.
A bit of research can greatly improve your writing and add a fair amount of depth. With certain topics I’d go as far as to say that it’s a necessity that you have a pretty good understanding of a topic that you’re writing about. You don’t want to just start guessing at Police procedure for your crime thriller when your protagonist is supposed to be a Police Officer, after all.
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© 2018 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.