Friday, January 25, 2008

Research resources

An issue I've seen debated on other writers' blogs is whether researching your articles on the Internet is acceptable. Some writers say that it's not, because it perpetuates the problem of regurgitated content: existing content that is simply rewritten and republished.

While I see the logic to this argument, I think this argument can be applied to any resource used for research. If a writer picks out a magazine at the newsstand, paraphrases an article, and sells it to a content site, what's the difference from the Internet-based scenario?

The basis for quality work lies not in the source of the information, but in the individual writer's skills — how good they are at researching, and then weaving the information they find into a unique new article.

Many writers (like me) enjoy being able to do all their research and writing from the comfort of their own home, but that doesn't mean the quality of our work has to suffer. Here are my tips for researching your articles online:

1. Use multiple sources. If you have an English degree, you learned this one in college: The best way to not inadvertently plagiarize is to use many sources on the same subject. I was taught that for scholarly papers, you should have at least as many sources as you have pages. That means a separate source for every 250 words.

I think that should probably be almost doubled for good content writing — I typically have 3 to 4 sources for short (500 or 600 words) articles, and 5 or more for longer articles.

2. Find a slant. Think of a new way to approach the material. The individual facts might still be found elsewhere online, but by finding a new way of looking at the material, you add to and improve the available content on the subject.

3. Know how to use your sources. A lot of writers scorn anyone who uses Wikipedia as a source. Personally, I think Wikipedia is great for two purposes: as a source for background information or commonly known facts, or as a jumping-off point for more in-depth research. In particular, I've found the outside links listed at the end of each article to be extremely helpful.

4. Do more than just Google. There are ways to search more traditional sources without venturing away from your computer. Online databases such as EBSCO are a great way to access traditional and scholarly print publications, and may be accessible for free through your public library or school website (even as an alumni). Also, some public libraries allow you to "borrow" ebooks via services such as NetLibrary (which I also blogged about here).

This post was inspired by the news that my public library is now offering access to EBSCO and other resources. Even though I still have access through my school's website (more than three years after graduation!), I was pretty excited about this new resource. It just goes to show how easily technology can replace — and redefine — traditional processes such as research.


Anonymous said...

People with degrees other than English ones were also taught how to properly cite sources.

Heck, I've even heard that phys ed major and even SCIENCE majors had to write papers.

Writing: not just for English majors!

Katharine Swan said...


I get the feeling from your comment that you were offended by my post. Please know that I did NOT mean that non-English majors don't know how to write or source properly. I simply know from my own experience that English majors ARE taught to do this, and I wanted to share what I learned in college about how many sources to use.

I don't believe at all that English majors are the only ones who can write. I have known many non-English majors, and even non-degreed individuals, who are exceptional writers. Conversely, some of my fellow English majors were such poor writers that I imagine they probably passed by the skin of their teeth.

Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

Heck, I was a MATH major I know how to write and source properly. ;o)

Katharine Swan said...

AND I bet that makes you good at COUNTING your sources, too! :oP


Popular Posts