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Exercise: Is that a fact? (Repeat)

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: May 2, 2004
Reposted on: Jul 31, 2005

Have you ever read a story or an article, and found a glaring error? Or conversely, been impressed by the author's knowledge? (In either case, how do you know the information is true or false?)

We all know a lot of things - and we all have the capacity to learn more. Unfortunately, we don't always know as much as we think we do, and much of what we think we know is false. "Ring around the rosey" is not about the plague, for example, and it's not true that "rule of thumb" refers to an archaic law allowing a husband to beat his wife.

A basic writing rule is "write what you know". This means, of course, digging into our own experiences - but also, learning to look around for information on things we have *not* experienced. This is where basic research skills come in. There are a lot of sources of information around, and learning to "look it up" is a valuable asset not just as writers, but in our daily lives.

First off, think of the many places you can look for information. The library comes to mind, of course, as does a good Web search engine. Less obvious, but often more effective (and more interesting), are other sources. Look around you. Open your dictionary, and see what information it provides other than simple definitions - perhaps tables showing the monetary units of many countries, or the key holidays of different religions. Look at the humble phone book; it points us to dozens or hundreds of experts on any subject.

Think of the people you know, or have access to, with expertise on various subjects. Besides acknowledged experts, everyone you know has interests and knowledge. Your neighbour or coworker may be interested in sailing, dog training, classic automobile restoration, and would probably love a chance to tell you more on that topic. (It's amazing how much information people are willing to share, if they have the time and you ask nicely, telling them why you're asking.)

Look at the variety of magazines on the shelves in stores; look at the ones that cover topics outside your usual area of interest. Buying and reading one of those is a quick way to get a glimpse into that topic - it won't make you an expert, of course, but you'll know more than you did before.

The Web, of course, is full of information - and of misinformation. Part of good research is learning how to double-check. People will confidently share false information: sometimes out of malice or self-interest, but more often because they're not questioning their own knowledge. So part of research is healthy skepticism.

The exercise for this week will more vaguely defined than usual. We'll ask you to do the following:

First, take a look at your resources - the usual ones of course, but also, take a look around the house and see what other resources there might be. Go to a library or a bookstore, check what courses are offered by your community college, go exploring on the web. Is there something you've been wondering about or wanting to learn more about? Say you've been curious about Ford's Edsel (often given as a prime example of corporate failure): you can of course look it up in the index at the library, or search for "Edsel" in your favourite search engine. But would you think to look for the address "www.edsel.com"? (It exists - it's the web page of the Edsel club, and includes quite a bit of information on that car and its history. And this is an example I picked at random for the purpose of this exercise.)

Trust serendipity: if your research takes you in an unexpected direction, and you learn something other than what you were looking for, that's fine!

Second, dig a bit deeper into the topic. Find *one* interesting piece of information - something you didn't know before that you find interesting. Then find at least one alternate source that either confirms or contradicts this.

Remember - sometimes finding out that something is *not* true is even more important than finding out that it is! So try to challenge some of the things you've heard and accepted as true. For example, you might go to sites such as www.urbanlegends.com or www.snopes.com and poke around till you find something that makes you think "is that so?" (Remember - the exercise then asks you to find supporting or contradictory information.)

When you've done this research, post your submission to the list telling us:

  • how you did your research.
  • what you learned that you found interesting.
  • how you double-checked that information, and what was the result.
  • was the information confirmed or contradicted elsewhere?
  • any conclusions you draw, about what you learned, and about what you learned about looking for information.

This exercise is not open to traditional critiques, so when "critiquing" a post, instead of commenting on the writing or content, add to the information, and/or to suggest other sources of information on that topic. This can come from your current knowledge, or you can do some further research of your own. When doing this, remember that the goal is not to argue what is true or not true, but instead to learn to look for information that will help us make that decision!

Of course, there's a limit to how much we can find out in a one-week exercise. On the other hand, it's often amazing what a few minutes of research can turn up. And remember to let your mind run free, and look for opportunities to learn. For example, I used the word "serendipity" above - were you familiar with that word? Do you know its origins? The first step in research is asking questions, then pursuing the questions that seem most interesting. If that leads to other questions, that's often a good thing - and it certainly is for the purposes of this exercise.

Be creative! Have fun


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