June 28, 2018
One of the most valuable tools in any writer's toolbox is the ability to evaluate sources.
- What is a trustworthy source?
- How do I know?
- Should I always avoid Internet sources?
- Is what I find in a book always better than what I find online?
These questions can make a new nonfiction writer's head spin, but learning to evaluate sources helps you to present information that is accurate to young readers. It makes your writing more valuable to readers, teachers, and publishers. And it will make you a better consumer of information in your own life. Let's face it, we all live in a world where we are bathed in data nearly 24-hours a day. So evaluating sources is important even if you're not a writer.
In many ways, the web is a lot like a collection of libraries that all exploded and mixed together. All kinds of fantastic information exists on the web including scanned documents of original sources that aren't available anywhere else. But unfortunately, the kernels of amazing research are mixed into a soup of passed-around pseudo-facts, odd opinions, and stuff someone simply made-up. This is one reason some children's magazines prefer authors use no online sources at all. It's not because good stuff doesn't exist online; it's because too many writers are simply not taking the time and effort to separate what is good from what is not.
Even though some children's magazines are reluctant to accept online sources, others are not, and many educational book publishers actually prefer online sources (because of the ease of fact-checking such material), so it's worthwhile to be adept at online research. Online material might be the very most recent, cutting edge research, while books can become dated. Newer research may disprove previously accepted "facts." So, if evaluated well, online sources can be more than acceptable, they may be preferred. But the responsible writer zooms down the information superhighway with care.
Trusting a Source Means Knowing Where the Facts Originated
Most truly good nonfiction sources have author names attached. That allows you to know who gathered the information and did the interviews. It's worthwhile to do a web search on the author to see if there are other scholarly or trustworthy articles by that person or if the person is secretly the main voice of a rather odd conspiracy site. Seeing other works by an author will help you know if you can trust the article you found and would like to use as a source for your own work.
Of course, not all nonfiction sources have an author name attached. Often government data sources have no specific name attached (though sometimes some digging will reveal a list of people involved with gathering the data). And sometimes museums and zoo websites will have information that does not have an author name attached. When that happens, you're left with evaluating the quality of the institute involved.
Who is Behind the Information?
Another important thing to consider when evaluating a source is why that source is putting the information out there. A museum or library will share information based on a desire to educate and inform. But a museum also wants to draw in visitors, so they may lean toward more exciting or enticing "retellings" of the information, and a certain amount of hype can creep in. Usually this isn't a huge problem, but what if a source has a compelling reason to get you to believe something that may not be true?
Let's consider a possible nonfiction topic: driverless cars. This is an interesting technology that seems likely to one day be a reality on the roads. Plus, elementary-aged children love transportation books. Transportation is one of the most frequently asked-for topics at libraries. So imagine you're going to write a highly illustrated book on driverless cars. Where would you go for research? Certainly some of the companies working on perfecting the driverless car would be eager to spread information about them, but you'd have to consider the information with a rather large pinch of salt. After all, a company like Google would have a vested interest in presenting the driverless car as a soon-coming, amazing technology. They might not readily talk about the problems they've encountered and could try to downplay that information in favor of the positives. But you may find in-depth reporting on the driverless car from adult science magazines that offer you new directions to pursue for your research.
Professional journalism can be a wonderful source of new avenues of information because professional journalists often talk about their sources in the articles, and you can then use your own search engine skills to track down those sources and get even more information. Think of online articles you find as a kind of sign-post potentially pointing you into deeper and deeper research. The deeper you go, the more you're likely to be able to evaluate what you learn because you're becoming more of an "expert" on the subject.
Professional nonfiction writers will sometimes talk about becoming a temporary expert as they dig and dig to find the best information, the most trustworthy, and the most interesting. While making this excavation, the writer is constantly educating herself (or himself). By the time a writer has chosen the best bits for the nonfiction picture book or the nonfiction article, the author has read deeply and become quite well-versed in the topic.
Research is a bit like an iceberg. The part you put into the article is the tiny tip of the iceberg that shows above the water. Beneath the water is a vast collection of information that informed the writer, making him/her able to choose the most engaging and valuable bits that are completely true. That deep-water ice isn't shown to the reader, but it is essential for holding the glorious tip into the air where it can be seen.
Notes, Notes, Notes
While you are researching, it is important to document. Often you will find that you want to return to information that you read but didn't consider particularly valuable at the time. Sometimes when you are writing, you realize that you've hit the perfect spot for that fact you vaguely remember. Documentation and note-taking will enable you to return quickly to that fact and slip it into the finished piece. So keep up with the many places you visit (online, in books, in person) so that you know specifically what you've learned and where you learned it. There is nothing more frustrating that knowing that you saw the specific fact or statistic that would enhance your article, but not knowing where you saw it.
Does that sound a bit overwhelming? In action, it is far more manageable since research is a journey. You don't have to make the whole journey at once. It is done a tiny bit at a time, and much of it is interesting and enjoyable. It's only when the journey is finished that you realize how much ground you've covered. Just take care not to be so caught up in the thrill of the research adventure that you forget to put down the source notes you'll need when the time comes to use what you've learned.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.