How To Do Proper Research

Posted by Anthony North on January 20, 2011

Writing non-fiction, whether article, essay or book, can be a nightmare. This is principally because they contain facts; and believe me, there is no such thing as an absolute fact, no matter what Gradgrind said.
With every ‘fact’ there is an army of differing opinions. And if a particular opinion is held strongly, all other treatments of the fact will be rubbished. It is a situation you cannot win, so make sure you have broad shoulders. And it gets worse.
This will often become clear when your work is published. If you’ve made a major blunder, someone will tell you. If you haven’t, some smart arse will find something obscure to quibble with. Ignore him or he’ll drive you mad.
Sometimes, though, he will prove what a fool you are. This is usually due to a ‘fact’ you have used because you know absolutely that it is right. Indeed, so sure are you that you didn’t even bother to look it up. This is a big mistake. We’re all delusional at times.
When deciding what a ‘fact’ is, the best place to begin is with the two most opposite views. From there, go to sources taking you ever closer to the centre. You still won’t please everyone, but at least you can convince yourself you’ve covered the subject.
This said, sometimes you can research too deeply. Spending hours on dozens of books and websites for an article is ridiculous. Similarly, it is too few for a book. If you know the subject well, you can form a balance. If you don’t, welcome to hell.
In the final analysis, if you want to write non-fiction you have to have discipline above the mere story writer, for the critics are even more severe if they think themselves an expert on the subject. Believe me, that’s a fact – or maybe not.

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