On Research


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Research #1


Here’s an easy quiz:  Without scrambling any of the letters, what words of three letters or more are contained inside the word “research”?  If you guessed “sea”, “sear”, “ear”, “arc”, “arch” and “search”, you deserve an A. 


There’s not much difference between the words research and search.  Both involve the act of looking for something.  Research generally refers to the collection of information. Before doing research or a search, you have to answer the same question:  What am I looking for?  You would never go on a search without knowing why you are wandering through the woods.  You do so, because your dog is lost or you want to gather wild flowers.  The same is true of research:  Be as clear in your mind as you can about what you are trying to find.  Write it down. Otherwise you will waste a lot of time wandering.


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Research #2


Before becoming a collector, you should become an explorer.   You have decided what you are looking for; next you must decide where you wish to look.  The more sources of reliable information the better:  the library, which has books, newspapers, magazines and other materials; search sites on the internet; certain government offices where records are kept; people who are experts on the topic you are researching.  Other places?


What motivates an explorer is the prospect of discovery.  It’s an exhilarating feeling to dig up information that clicks.   Often you’re going to hit a lot of dead ends before you reach that “aha!” moment of discovery, but bear in mind that exhaustive research—which you should strive for—can be exhausting.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Research #3


My father never read a book—not even a novel--without a pencil and paper at hand.  It’s pretty impossible to do research without taking written notes (or notes typed into your computer). 


Assuming you don’t have a photographic memory, notes save you the trouble of memorizing.  They save you from looking up a piece of information a second time at a later date.  They also help you absorb the information in your mind.  It’s better to have too many notes than too few.  One technique is take careful handwritten notes, then type them when time permits.  You might wish to organize notes by subject matter.  Retyping gives you a better grasp of the material you have gathered.  Well-organized research notes translate into easier writing in the end.


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Research #4


Make note when you are taking notes.


Note the name of the book; jot down the name of  the publisher and author or authors, the year of publication, what page your notes are taken from.  If necessary, make note of any footnotes as well. 


If your source is a magazine or newspaper, note the official name (is it New York Times or The New York Times; New Yorker or The New Yorker?); note the author, the date of publication, the page number(s). 


Be especially vigilant when researching website material, because the information frequently comes from another source.  Clicking on links sometimes leads to the original material.  Some web stories list references at the bottom of their stories. 


Keeping track of where information comes from can often be as vital as the information itself.  For instance, your notes may contain a quotation, saying “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.”  What’s most noteworthy about this note is the person you’re quoting—the Greek philosopher Socrates.


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Research #5


Say you pick up a textbook with a title something like, “The History of the World”.  It has more than 1000 pages.  It would make a good doorstep.  You stare at it and finally say to yourself, “I don’t have a clue!”


Where to begin?  Get a clue.  Rather than start at Page 1 and read the entire book, what you want to do is look for clues.  The best clues are in the front and in the back of the book.  Something called “The Table of Contents” usually is found in the front and contains chapter titles.  In the back is the Index, an alphabetical listing of names and words with page references.  In some books the Index is thorough; other books only list important names and words.  In either case the Index can send you right to the pages you most need to look at.


Photographs often provide valuable clues, too.  Sometimes there is a listing of photos in the front of the book with page numbers.  Sometimes books are printed with the photos all clustered together on successive pages.  At worst, you might have to flip through the pages to find pictures connected to your research.  Occasionally the photographs will lead you to pertinent information because of what they depict or what is mentioned in the caption or because of some information you get visually from the photo.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Research #6


Internet search engines are a double-edged sword.  They are easy to use but contain the most inaccurate information.  It’s best to have at least two sources for information that is taken from the internet—making sure one isn’t copying from the other.


Take the time to study how best to use these search engines.  Sometimes the best results come when you use the fewest words in your query.  An owner of one of the biggest sites has said that three words are optimal for his search engine.


Use quotation marks around words or phrases that are exactly what you are looking for, such as a name or a phrase.  “Old King Cole” without quotes may retrieve more references to Nat King Cole, a popular 20th Century singer,  than to the merry old soul.


Say you’re a little hesitant about a phrase.  Was it “one if by land, two if by sea”  or  “one if by sea, two if by land”?  Try both.  You’ll find neither is correct.  It is:  “One, if by land, and two, if by sea”.  Or maybe you know the exact phrase but you are unsure whether the title is “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” or “Paul Revere’s Ride.”  Searching the phrase will quickly tell you the title is the latter.


Take the time to familiarize yourself with the tricks of the search-engine trade.  Most have similar rules, but some have tricks or shortcuts that speed your research.






Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Research #7


Research doesn’t always have to entail pouring through drawers of file-cabinet folders with moths flying out or slogging through a half dozen thick encyclopedias. 


Human beings sometimes are fountains of information that may never find its way into a library:  The 85-year-old who could tell what the Great Depression was like in about 20 states, because he was a hobo; the Irish wood carver whose intricate designs were passed down from his County Meath ancestors; the nurse who worked with Mother Theresa in India; the botanist, the butcher, the baker.  Humans enjoy talking about what they are good at or about subjects in which they have expertise.


If you have access to a tape recorder, ask the person you are interviewing for permission to record what is said.  But you should still take notes as best you can for two reasons:  (1) it will help you find important quotes on the tape when you are organizing in preparation for writing; (2) the tape recorder might fail to work!


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Research #8


We have established that a researcher is a good advance planner, an explorer, a collector and a keeper of notes about notes and an organizer.  We also have suggested that good note taking avoids the need to look up a piece of information a second time. 


However, bear in mind that second checking is often a plus and never a minus.  The ultimate aim is accuracy.  You may be able to remember what year the War of 1812 started, but do you know when the Peloponnesian War began and ended?  If you are unsure, even if you looked it up once, double check it.


Editors frequently spout the following:  When in doubt, check it out.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Research #9


The need for accuracy cannot be overemphasized.  So what causes inaccuracies?  Generally the original mistake is made in the research phase and copied in the writing phase.  If you jot down a wrong date in your notes, it’s likely to inaccurate when you write. 


Care should be taken when it comes to bits of information:  the spelling of a name or a person’s middle name, a date, a geographic location, a person’s exact title, etc.  Be especially careful that you correctly spell the main subject of your research.


Usually a second reference can be used as a double-check on factoids:  an encyclopedia, a dictionary, an atlas or book of maps, even a telephone book.  When in doubt, check it out.  I already said that, you say?  Right.  And I’ll say it again and again.  You prefer a shorter version?  OK.  Never guess!


Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Research #10


Certain information is common knowledge:  The Earth is round, airplanes fly, horses have four legs.  Other information is less obvious or may even be controversial (only a few hundred years ago many believed the Earth to be flat).  Be sure to make note of “the whom”—the source of your information--when making notes on less obvious or controversial facts. 


Here’s a piece of information:  Modern horses have only one functional toe. 


It’s not common knowledge, certainly is not obvious and even could be controversial.  So how do you handle it?  You need attribution.  You need to answer the question:  According to whom? 


Be sure your notes reflect the name of the person or other source for any information you collect.  Like the antique dealer who needs to be able to tell the customer who previously owned the flower vase, the researcher needs to tell the reader on whose authority a certain statement is made.


Not only does name of the original source add to accuracy but it also helps the reader judge whether the information is believable.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Research #11


As efficient as we may be, we often have to do research on our research.


When it comes time to write, we look at our notes and frequently question whether they are thorough enough or even whether they are totally accurate.  After doing a lot of research on a subject, little inconsistencies in our own early notes sometimes jump out at us.


It’s time to re-research.  Even the best researchers at times end up going back to the library or to the web to double-check certain items.  Never hesitate, because you want what you ultimately write to be as accurate as humanly possible.


Double-checking is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength and wisdom.



Bite-Sized Tutorials…On Research #12


You’ve finished your research, and you’ve got all this stuff piled high.  Now what?


Assumedly you have organized your notes in the course of your research, putting apples in one pile, oranges in another and pears in another.  Still, you’ll usually find you have too much information.  This is a plus.


One way to discern what’s important is to start writing without looking at your notes.  Write from memory.  Do a fast draft.  What’s most important will pop into your mind.  Then go back to your research notes and get the exact date, the exact quote or whatever.  As you are browsing, you may also stumble across some additional facts you had forgotten about.


Grain farmers refer to this process as “separating the wheat from the chafe.”  For you that means identifying what information in your notes is important and what is fluff.