What sources matter most?
Today, we’re wrapping Research Month on the IFW blog. What good is all that research without a good bibliography? This article comes from our book SEARCHING: A RESEARCH GUIDE FOR WRITER. For more practical research tips and loads of links to sources to get you started, pick up the book today in the IFW Bookstore.
Nonfiction children’s writers may write articles for magazines or newspaper sections. They might write for Internet publications or traditional book publishers. Opportunities are diverse and plentiful.
While each one of these assignments has unique qualities, they all have one point of common ground—their bibliographies. Every work of nonfiction is professionally assessed by the sources used to produce it. A stellar bibliography documents those sources—and the commitment of the writer who compiled it.
What sources matter most? Primary sources? Secondary sources? Interviews? Books? Each step has value, so let me walk you through my own process.
The Chicago Tribune KidNews once asked me to write a fun summer feature about why shoes stink. I turned to an Internet news search as my first step—the quest for background information via secondary sources.
Secondary sources are well-crafted nonfiction books or articles about topics and/or experts, but not written by the experts themselves.
A good place to start is a browser search. Using “why feet stink” as the search term, I found a credible Business Insider article on why voters found it hard to tolerate body odor, including smelly feet. At first, the article seemed off topic, but I read it anyway, to enrich my understanding of foot odor. Within the text, I found Marco Tullio Liuzza, a scientist at Stockholm University who studied odor and sociology. His academic website featured his email address, mailing address, and phone number.
Should a peripheral article like this be included in a bibliography? Yes, if a significant portion helps build an understanding of the assignment topic. It might also inspire and support a sidebar on how human beings decide what stinks and what smells good. I made note of the core information, just in case. Finding a legitimate scientist made it worth the time it took to read the extra article.
Next, I found an article on an unfamiliar website. I couldn’t confirm the site’s journalistic credibility—I found no parent company, no mailing address, no contact form to indicate public accountability —so I didn’t consider using it in my bibliography. But I did skim the text. It mentioned the “Skin and Care Foundation” in Australia and a condition known as bromhidrosis.
I could not find the foundation mentioned. But a browser search on bromhidrosis turned up a second credible source—an article in Men’s Fitness on foot odor—and a second scientist to interview. Dr. Jane Kardashian is an MD and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, a super source in terms of a bibliography. A search of her name revealed a street address and a telephone number.
For a short nonfiction piece, seek out at least six articles and three scientific experts/interviews for the final bibliography. And don’t overlook corporate sources. For the foot odor article, I turned to Dr. Scholl’s. Known for their foot care supplies, including sprays and powders to combat foot order, they have a robust website, complete with a contact form.
“I am a journalist working on an article for the Chicago Tribune KidNews about why feet stink,” my form message began. “Is there a scientist I can speak with about the topic?” Days later, I had a name, a credential, and an appointment for a telephone interview. Here was my third scientist and final expert source.
To build interview questions, I draw from the secondary source articles I have found. If an article makes a statement of fact that can’t be confirmed in two other reliable sources, it becomes an interview question. “I read that skin cells can escape our socks to line our shoes,” I asked my expert. “Is that true?” Not only did the reply give me confidence the fact is true, but also fresh quotes from an expert worth quoting. With only five questions per expert, I had all the quotes I needed.
When I turned in the final 600-word article, my editor at the Chicago Tribune knew three scientists had been interviewed, two from academia and one from a trusted American corporation. She knew at least six related articles were used to prepare for interviews. I’d actually read a dozen and watched a video, but only six articles and three interviews made it into my bibliography.
Why DO your sneakers stink? Because you shed skin cells into your shoes, then you sweat. Dead skin plus moisture equals the scent of human decomposition. A gross but very kid friendly conclusion backed by science. It doesn’t get much better than that—unless you traffic in primary sources.
Interviews can be primary or secondary sources. My odor experts were certainly primary sources; they were first-hand experts in the world of stinky stuff. But if I’d interviewed an author who wrote about those scientists, that interview would be a secondary source, a journalist reporting on the expertise of others. The author’s book would also be a secondary source.
Authors of historical nonfiction draw from secondary sources. But their holy grail is primary source material including period letters and documents. An 1804 newspaper article about the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr would be a great secondary source if it is a report by someone who did not actually participate. But a letter from Hamilton to Burr revealing his thoughts before the duel would be a primary source.
Should you skip the secondary sources if you have primary documents? Absolutely not. The letter reflects the nature of the argument between the two men. The newspaper article reflects the public perception of the duel. Both have important factual impact when it comes to the nonfiction you’ll create. Again, both have merit for their unique perspectives.
After twenty-five years, my editors know I double check my bibliographies.
When I interview a scientist, I always ask him or her to vet the part of the information they helped me create. Most times, they sign off with very few changes, and I’m glad. But I’m even more pleased when they catch my mistakes.
During an interview, I listen closely. I record the interview to secure proof of what was actually said, should there ever be a dispute. And I take written notes, as well. Something about my fingers’ engagement glues the facts to my very imperfect brain. Still, what I hear isn’t always what an expert means.
When I wrote Mysteries of the Mummy Kids, acclaimed archaeologist Johan Reinhard was one of my primary sources for a chapter on Mayan mummies from Peru and Argentina. I read a dozen articles about his excavations and three of his books before I interviewed him. I’d also watched a documentary from National Geographic and read a “Sexiest Person” profile in People Magazine. I thought I understood every aspect of his work. The interviews went very well and he agreed to vet his chapter.
When he did, I was gobsmacked. To my dismay and surprise, I’d completely misunderstood one element of his field experience. Dr. Reinhard had found Inca mummies on more than one occasion. My mind had attributed one event to his second discovery, when in fact it was from his first. I was embarrassed, but I was also relieved. As we discussed my error, I came to understand his work even better. I corrected the text, and we were both pleased with the final results.
No matter how sure you are of your research, ask your experts to check the final drafts. It won’t be visible on your bibliography, but it’s your last chance to get it right, before your readers discover you got it wrong. And your editors will be impressed by your extra efforts.
When I met literary agent Jill Corcoran at a writers’ conference in Boise, Idaho, she knew I’d written nonfiction books and articles for young readers all my professional life. After a little small talk, she asked me one question. “How can an agent be sure a nonfiction writer can be trusted to do careful, accurate research?”
“Here,” I said, turning to the partial bibliography of my book Tales of the Cryptids. “This is how you tell a careful nonfiction author from one unwilling to do the work.” She signed me the next day.
A strong bibliography is your hallmark of excellence, no matter what kind of nonfiction you tackle. It is a reflection of your work ethic, proof that accuracy really matters. And accuracy is key to a career that will endure.
Make sure you’re adding depth when you write your fiction or nonfiction. Pick up SEARCHING: A RESEARCH GUIDE FOR WRITER today in the IFW Bookstore.
Leslie J. Wyatt has published more than 450 articles and stories for children and adults. Leslie’s credits range from historical fiction for middle-graders—Poor is Just a Starting Place—to children’s magazines such as Highlights for children and Cricket, and adult magazines including Working Writer and Homeschool Enrichment.
Kelly Milner Halls has crafted high interest nonfiction books and article for your readers. Known for quirky but well researched topics, Halls delights in drawing even reluctant readers into the realm of discovery through the explorations of dinosaurs, Sasquatch, UFOs or dozens of other unusual themes. She has published more than 1,000 articles and reviews published in Highlights for Children, Ask!, Dig, Children’s Digest, U.S. Kids, Child Life, Yes!, Hullabaloo, Kid City, Fox Kids, Curiocity for Kids, Freezone, Guidepost for Kids, Guidepost for Teens, Teen PEOPLE, Family Fun, Writer’s Digest, Booklist, and more.