I love the web. I love having all that information at my fingertips. It makes writing so much easier than it used to be.
How it used to be
In the early 1970s I found myself driving through the snow to the nearest major city library. I wanted to find an article in a trade journal that described explosions similar to the one I was writing about. The reference librarian had identified the article for me. Now I needed to read it to see what helpful details it contained.
But there turned out to be a problem. The volume with the article I wanted was missing. There was an empty space on the shelf where it was supposed to be. Perhaps some library patron was reading it. Perhaps it was mis-shelved. Perhaps someone had stolen it. It didn’t matter. My two hour drive to the library and my three hour drive home through the building snowstorm was a waste of time.
Two hours to the library. Three hours of full-attention driving to home. Parking fees. And gas. OK, I drove a VW bug and gas was thirty cents a gallon, but I wasn’t making any money. And all for an article in a printed volume that wasn’t where it was supposed to be.
A few moments ago I followed up on a quote I wanted to use . There was a link to a source. Bingo-bango. Job done. No driving through snow. No danger that the volume I wanted would have gone missing. Done. In. Seconds.
I love the web. But …
So many facts, so little verification
Daniel Patrick Moynihan reminded others on the Social Security Commission that he chaired that “you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” But that was before the days of the Web.
Back then, the hard work was the spade work of finding data. Today data is everywhere. Good data, bad data, it’s all there and you can find it in an instant. The only thing you don’t know is whether it’s a real fact or something someone made up.
This is not a new problem
I’ve always been skeptical of what “everybody knows.” Everybody knows, for example, about the study of Ivy League college graduates who had goals for their life and those who did not. Books and motivational speakers and even Time Magazine repeated the story of Chivas Regal’s price increase. Why not? It’s easier to quote others than to figure out if a “fact” is real or not.
It’s worse today
The Web has made it easier to be lazy. You can pull up a quote from one of those quote sites to support your argument. You can use the assertion of some jerk in a basement as if it were true. That’s easier than doing the hard work of checking the facts.
Good writers check facts
If you intend to do good, credible work, you must learn to get the facts right. That’s not always easy. In fact, sometimes it’s downright hard. But if you want to write things that people believe, if you want to be trusted, you’ve got to do the work. Here are some things that work for me.
Identify trustworthy sources
Good sources are the key. If you start with publications, experts, and other sources you can trust it all gets easier. You’ll also find that trustworthy sources are usually the one who describe the facts they share.
Become a fact detective
Follow the references back to the source. This sounds easy, but it’s difficult in practice. Too many writers simply copy what other writers have said and then cite them as the source.
Don’t just say “research says”
When you share a fact or finding, don’t just say, “research says.” Tell the reader what research and by whom and where you found it.
If you want an example of how to do it well, check out anything that Bob Sutton writes. Here’s a link to the latest book he’s worked on, Scaling Up Excellence. Use Amazon’s “Look Inside the Book” feature to find examples of how the master presents research.
Good writers respect facts, verify them, and cite them professionally.
“with all the information bouncing around on the Internet, it can be difficult for freelance article writers to know where to find facts from reliable sources. The key to avoiding timewasting browsing is to know what you’re looking for, and what sorts of sources you can trust.”
Snopes bills itself as “the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.” I use it to check out all sorts of things.