Using Research in Writing

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This week we got serious here in the writers group. Serious about research.

Alex, who is currently writing himself into the quagmire of a PhD thesis on robotics, got us started on how to boost our writing with evidence.

Free Writing promptWrite something on a topic on which you have an opinion. Don’t try and hide it within a story, just get down to the opinion. Either write it in 1st person or 3rd person authoritative (i.e putting across the opinions as being “how things are”). (if you are stuck coming up with ideas there’s a list of topics at the bottom)

 

Research in Writing

Well researched writing teaches us about things which we never even considered that we didn’t know. Whether you’ve been taught about police procedures by Ian Rankin, about dinosaur genetics by Michael Crichton or the layout of the Louvre by Dan Brown, we have all learned something from reading fiction which contains accurate information. Similarly we’ve all been “snapped out” of a story by some glaring inaccuracy – such as when the killer uses a randomly found hairpin to pick the lock of a multi-million dollar mansion in under ten seconds.

Although it might be tempting to just throw our hands in the air and claim “it’s fiction so facts don’t really matter” (which to an extent has some truth to it as over-reliance on facts can get in the way of a good story), we can all agree that at little bit of good research can go a long way in writing fiction. For non-fiction, of course, it’s essential.

The problem is that there’s a lot of bullshit out there. Research is not just about being able to find information any more (if it ever was) but has become all about finding the droplet of right information and ignoring, or disputing, the sea of wrong information to which we have such easy access.

We’ve all spent several hours searching for something on Google, found enough information to re-sink the titanic and still be missing the essential piece that we were looking for in the first place. This can quickly lead to infobesity (aka infoxication or information overload) and make us doubt that research is really worth the hassle. What we need is a strategy.

Additional note from Alex: “But I don’t like having to plan before I write” 

Well, the short of it is that it’s less work if you plan first, but I don’t much like planning either. What I tend to do is leave a place holder, e.g write [R] or [?], in the text when I realise I’ve just said something that probably needs backing up. Then afterwards I’ll go back and research those statements. It usually means I have to go back and change lots more later, but it doesn’t get in the way of the initial splurge.

 

Exercises

(These exercises are adapted from some from the free course Rhetorical Composing, which is apparently coming back in Autumn 2014.)

Writing Exercise 1:

Research is essentially “conversation” (you are joining a public conversation about the topic you write about). Blog posts are also basically “conversation”.

You’re going to write a blog post. Instead of just jumping in an writing it (and relying on your infinite knowledge of the world) you’re going to start brainstorming the idea.

Draft an “I’m interested in” statement. Simply complete the following statement:
“As a_____, I’m interested in_______ .”

(e.g. As a person who sees badly behaved children in shops, I’m interested in writing a blog post about whether or not children are less well behaved than they were in the past, that seeks to persuade the reader that children are monsters and something should be done about it.)

Writing Exercise 2:

Stasis theory is a 4 question, pre-writing process to which helps writers identify and “get critical” about the issues they are investigating.
Use “stasis theory” to work out what sort of information you expect to be referencing in the post.

Stasis questions:
Facts
Do the facts support your position? If so, how do you use the facts to achieve your persuasive ends?
(e.g. I think the facts support my position. I think there’s research showing that …. I hope it shows…)
Definition
If the facts are not to your advantage or convincing to your audience, how might you redefine terms to your persuasive advantage?
(e.g. If the facts don’t support my position, or aren’t very convincing, I will, for example, talk about how youth crime is rising, or how more teachers are off with stress and link that to my argument.)
Quality
If you do not elect to redefine terms, how might you instead accept the terms but then argue from quality, namely, that opposing positions are less important or persuasive than they seem?
(e.g. I will maintain that my position is the most reasonable and well thought out by … I will show that my argument is well considered and not just that of a grumpy old bastard by…. )
Relevance
If you do not argue from quality, how might you question the relevance of the argument made by those holding opposing positions and switch the argument to the future tense, to choice?
(e.g. I will acknowledge the counterarguments but persuade that my argument is more convincing by… I will show that the counter arguments are weak because, for example “this specific counter argument that children are angels is made by the mother of a teenager but research shows that teenagers only tell 10% of things to their parents, etc.)

(OPTIONAL) Writing Exercise 3:

“An important part of research writing (and many other kinds of writing) is identifying when sources are “speaking” to each other. When researching a particular topic, you will likely collect many sources that seem to discuss the same thing.” [4]

One way to visualise such a conversation is by argument mapping. Draw up an argument map of your topic, and write in all the supporting and opposing premises that you can think for each argument.

Check out argunet for an intro.

alex 1

You can then expand on both the supporting (green) and the opposing (red) premises.

alex 2

Remember, the aim is not to get a map that is “all green”. It begins to look fishy if all your evidence backs you up completely, and your reader might start to doubt you – it’s the conversational equivalent of ignoring anyone who tries to refute what you’re saying. It’s much better to introduce the opposing view and then beat it to the ground with carefully considered evidence.

By acknowledging the opposing views you actually make your argument more persuasive.

 

Some example topic ideas

  • How the government of <some country> is great/terrible/boring/enthralling.
  • How the strike of garbage collectors in Madrid affected you/didn’t affect you.
  • How tea/hot chocolate/coffee in cafés is always to hot/cold/weak/strong/bland.
  • How the Mediterranean breakfast/diet is great/terrible/healthy/unhealthy.
  • How the internet is a wonderful tool/a useless waste of time/full of idiots/full of geniuses/full of cats.
  • How the standard of TV/advertising is great/abysmal/predictable/chaotic/repetitive.
  • How alcoholic drinks in <some country> are too cheap/too expensive/too strong/too weak/too tasteless/too tasty.
  • How celebrities aren’t what they used to be/are the same as they always were.
  • How <some film/book> is overrated/underrated/terribly written/wonderfully written.

 

Some external research writing links

Writing a good research blog post.

Research Sources for Writers: A Guide to Backing up Your Words.

How to improve your researching skills and write accurately.

A more complicated argument map.

 

About Alex Owen-Hill

Alex is a freelance writer of non-fiction articles on various subjects, including gastronomy, technology, science, language learning and creativity. He joined the Madrid Writer's Club right back when it was born, and is thrilled how it's grown. In his spare time he is a short film maker, amateur cook and musician. He also has a PhD in robotics, but we don't talk about that.

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