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The Right Way to Do Research

No matter what kind of writing you do, from time to time you’re going to have to do research. Maybe that involves backing up a claim that is central to your argument or making sure the plot you’re developing is even remotely believable.

There are several elements that go into great research. If you want to get it right, it takes a little more than typing a question into Google or browsing Wikipedia. Not a lot more — and not a lot more effort, once you know what you’re doing — but it takes a special focus.

The best way for me to explain it is to show you. So I’ll pick up where I left off yesterday, with the story of my high school English and History teachers who taught me how to ace A. P. tests.

Learning the Rules

See…one of the hardest parts of those A. P. tests is the essay portion. The testmakers provide you with a topic — a question that forces you to take a stance — and then a big packet of information — articles and news clips and book excerpts like you might have found with some really dedicated research.

Then your job is to write an essay answering the question and using the research packet as supporting evidence. On first glance it seems easy, because they give you all the information you need to answer the question!

The problem is that the testmakers, when they’re building the information packet, work aggressively to trick you. So some of the information in the packet is relevant, and some isn’t. Much of it is contradictory, too, but often in ways that aren’t obvious at all.

Many, many students have failed those essay tests by building their essays on two really compelling articles, getting halfway done, and only then discovering that their thesis makes no sense because of the implications of the two articles they used.

That might sound cruel (and we certainly thought it was when Mr. Davis first explained it to us). It’s actually an ingenious representation of real life, though. The information we have access to is complicated, and it can absolutely be deceptive.

Learning to master those tests taught us early on to look for the hidden bias, to figure out what this selection of facts implies about the truth from which those facts were selected. We learned how to evaluate the significance of a given piece of material, and how to effectively connect an important but poorly-worded bit of information into our essays.

Writing to a Deadline

Those are all important research and writing skills, but the final exam was going to be timed. So as we got further into the semester, both professors started insisting that we practice going through the process faster and faster and faster.

Eventually, it became quite clear that good research principles take too much time. There was no way to evaluate all of the evidence, figure out the right thing to say, and then craft a decent document in the time we were given.

Does that sound familiar to you? It’s what the rest of the world calls a “deadline.” Whether you’re writing blog posts or whitepapers or maintenance handbooks, there’s just too much information available for us to ever hope to find, understand, and synthesize every single bit of relevant info. It’s a beautiful sentiment, but it doesn’t work in the real world.

Researching Your Writing

That’s the problem: information overload. And what’s the answer? It’s a tantalizingly simple process, but I’m out of time for today. It’s time for me to close the book and put down my pencil. Still, come back tomorrow, and I’ll tell you exactly how to do effective, efficient research to improve your writing.

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