The way we access information and conduct our research has changed dramatically over recent years. Once we would have headed off to the public library, sourcing information from text books, reports, magazines and journals.
Now the internet has taken over as the number one research tool and while its speed and immediacy are obvious benefits it’s important to remember that not everything you read is necessarily accurate, or indeed up to date.
In the ‘old days’ of leafing through an encyclopaedia for example, you were safe in the knowledge that it had been written by reliable experts. Now, we have the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia whose avowed — and admirable — aim is to “bring knowledge to everyone who seeks it”.
So far so good. Wikipedia entries are written and updated by internet volunteers and while this usually means that information is constantly updated, it may not always be factually accurate. There’s a great deal of very useful, accurate information on Wikipedia but for the purpose of your research it’s useful to undertake a critical reading.
Another useful online resource are newspaper archives. The material will have been checked for accuracy before publication and can be a useful starting point. A key reminder is to do some preliminary research, especially if on a pay-per-view website so that you can keep costs down.
One of the nicer ‘perils’ of research is getting sidetracked by uncovering a tasty nugget of information that isn’t actually relevant to your topic. We all have our own working methods but what works best for me is to keep my ‘ideas’ notebook to hand and write down a brief note on the topic and — essentially— its source at the time I find it. If I’m away from home without my trusty notebook I use the voice recorder or Evernote on my mobile phone. (Evernote is especially useful as it can synchronise with your computer, automatically downloading the content when you return home). I’ve learnt that particular lesson the hard way: it’s far too easy to think that I’ll remember where I saw the information and of course weeks or even months later the location has been lost under the deluge of information and sources on other topics uncovered in the interim.
Whether your research is written in notebooks, kept in files of clippings, on voice recorder messages or web pages, do keep it. The information may be useful for similar articles in the future. In that scenario you’ll be in the happy position of owning a fact file to get you started, reducing the time required to write another article.
Finally, the most obvious point of all which can become lost: get started. It’s all too easy to carry on researching in the hope of uncovering just one more piece of information, or in fact to delay starting to write! Buried under the mountain of acquired research with no clear starting point means that you can lose focus — and that can quickly become a dispiriting place to be.
Love it or loathe it, research is key to your feature or your novel. Some find it a necessary evil, others like me delight in it. Whichever camp you fall into there’s no escaping it but with your research properly undertaken, you can rest easy that your credibility will be 100% intact.