October 3, 2019
You know that tiring toddler stage where your child asks questions and never stops? Well, I never grew out of that stage.
Introduce any topic about which I know nothing, and I'll have a ton of questions. I might not pepper you with all of them, but they exist. I have questions about science and history and politics and medicine. I have questions about publishing and trends and the changes that go on all the time. One of the reasons I went into journalism in college was because it offered me a license to ask questions. And these days, I primarily write for third grade readers because that's the sweet spot where boundless curiosity first meets the capacity to understand complex answers if they're presented clearly and well. Third graders are my people, and I try to serve them well.
Pre-Internet, the finding of answers to my many questions was hard and frustrating. Unanswered questions piled up. I knew there were answers to many of them. I just didn't know how to get them. Today, I often read of some incident from history (The Great Molasses Flood!) or an interesting creature (Mantis Shrimp!) and my need-to-know lights up. Then I go hunting for answers. And these days, I can find them. We live in an information age, which is a perfect time for question addicts like me. But being bathed constantly in information requires discernment and a certain amount of skepticism. Not all information is created equal.
In past years, we warned writers not to use online sources for your nonfiction, because much of what you might find online was unsourced, biased, or too far removed from primary source. But things have changed. Today there are scanned copies of many primary source materials (explorer journals! pioneer diaries!) that used to take time and travel to see. But writers can read them in the comfort of their homes. We can also see photos from NASA, government documents, and research reports. All of these things provide reliable answers. The quality of research isn't tainted because it comes from online sources. But it does require some discernment.
When researching online, the smart writer digs for the gems. A quick skim will get you information that has been passed around, is poorly documented, and contains error and bias. The top returns on search engines are often linked to sources with an agenda (often to sell something). So a good researcher pushes past those and begins digging for sources closer to primary. Primary sources are those that come from original document by people who were at an event or did the research study. These sources can be a little harder to find, but they'll give you answers you can trust.
In a way, writers are curators of information for our readers. We are supposed to do the deep, careful research that they simply haven’t the time or skills to do. We dig and study and find the best and more trusted information and then pass that info on to the reader. The reader is trusting that we will get it right. And to do that, we need a strong drive for answers. The drive is essential so that a writer won't quit at that upper, questionable layer of sources, but will dig deeper to find truth.
So, where do these excellent primary sources lie? Well, respected colleges and universities are often great places to find sources researching in a specific subject. I've found people to interview directly that way. I've even done an email interview with a researcher answering questions while researching in the arctic. Historical societies and libraries are often great places to find primary documents scanned and put online. Major museums are often on the cutting edge of study as well, and many are putting as much of their collection online as possible. These types of sources all have answers to some of the questions you or I might have.
To be honest, not all my research turns into books or articles or stories that I'll sell. Sometimes I get my answers, but I don't see a way in to make it interesting for my readers. In that case, it helps that getting answers is its own reward for me. In cases like that, I'm happy as long as I’ve learned new things. I'm happier still if I learned something I can pass on to readers.
So how about you? What questions do you have?
Poke your inner toddler and stir your curiosity. Intellectual adventure awaits, right at your computer.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor.
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