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Exercise: Look it up, long-term exercise

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).
Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau

Posted on: Sun, 28 Oct 2001
Revised and reposted on: Sun, 17 Oct 2004

This is the long-term version of the "Look it up" exercise ( http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/pwarchive/pw43.shtml )

One of the writing "rules" we writers run into is "Write what you know". Certainly, as a reader, there is nothing more jarring than running into a blatant piece of incorrect information in a book - it can weaken, or even totally destroy, the suspension of disbelief required by the act of reading. On the other hand, good research adds depth and detail to a story, making it more interesting and more believable.

Some writers find this rule discouraging - as if it would limit what they can write about. As a male, for example, can I never attempt to write from the point of view of a woman, though I have not experienced directly what it's like to be a woman?

I like to turn the rule around: Know what you write. And what is knowledge? It is the sum of what we have learned, in various ways: what I have experienced directly, what I have heard others tell me, what I have researched (in books or in the field).

Dick Francis gives us a good example of that. Before he started to write, he was a jockey (and a highly successful one at that.) So when he began to write, he wrote about jockeys and about the horse racing world - he wrote what he knew. But he did not stop there. As his writing career progressed, he started to write about people in different professions or walks of life: about a banker, a wine merchant, an actor, a survivalist, and so on. In each case, he did enough research (assisted, we have since learned, by his wife) to get enough knowledge: he made sure he knew what he wrote about.

(This example, by the way, demonstrates that research is just as important for fiction as for non-fiction.)

To me, experiencing something other than my day-to-day life is a major attraction of reading - and of writing.

This exercise, then, is about research - something all writers should be familiar with (but many writers, myself included, are weak on). And because research on anything of real interest can hardly be completed within the short time frame of our exercises, this will be an exercise in two parts.

Do some research on some topic applicable to a story you are working on or would like to write, or just something you feel you could learn more about. Make sure to pick a topic with which you're not already familiar. You can search the web (all writers should have a favourite search engine and experience in searching - my favourite search engine is at http://www.google.com), go to the library, consult someone more knowledgeable in that area (most people are happy to share their knowledge when asked - as long as they have the time to do so, of course.) Ideally, you should seek more than one source of information (if only to make sure the information you get is reliable - but also to give a broader base of information.)

Remember that good research is creative. Think about who might have knowledge to share, and how you might ask them to do so. Think of potential learning experiences - if your interest is in a building trade, for example, your local harware store might have free demonstrations, or be able to point you to some.

Don't let this take over your life, but look for more information (maybe reading a book or two on the topic, for example), and in particular, for more direct experience. For example, if my topic was caves, I might make arrangements to visit a nearby cave to see what it's really like - something I can't really learn from books, or even from talking to experts.

(Be careful, of course - don't blindly rush into caverns without assistance; don't try to interview drug users unless you can find a safe way to do so, and so on. Some topics can only be *really* experienced with significant personal risk - in those cases, it's best to rely on second-hand sources of information.)

At any time until the exercise is terminated, you can post your methods and results (no more than 1500 words - we don't need to know everything you've learned, just the broad outlines of what you did and found out.)

Clearly label your submission as: Sub: Long-term research (Your Name)

Critiques should be labelled: Crit: Long-term research (Author's Name)

Would you like to discuss the long-term research exercise? Use the subject header: DISC: Long-term research

(After the exercise is terminated, you can still post an offer, briefly describing what you're offering and labelling it as:

Offer: Long-term research (Your Name)

You can then send the text, and receive critiques, privately.)

Have fun!

Rhéal Nadeau

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.