Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: April 5, 2003
Exercise: Is that a fact?
Have you ever read a story or an article,
and found a glaring error?
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
Unfortunately, we don't always know as much as we think we do, and much
we think we know is false. "Ring around the rosey" is not about the
for example, and it's not true that "rule of thumb" refers to an
allowing a husband to beat his wife.
A basic writing rule is "write what you
know". This means, of
into our own experiences - but also, learning to look around for
things we have *not* experienced. This is where basic research skills
There are a lot of sources of information around, and learning to "look
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.
comes to mind, of course, as does a good Web search engine. Less
often more effective (and more interesting), are other sources. Look
you. Open your dictionary, and see what information it provides other
simple definitions - perhaps tables showing the monetary units of many
countries, or the key holidays of different religions. Look at the
phone book; it points us to dozens or hundreds of experts on any
Think of the people you know, or have
access to, with expertise on
subjects. Besides acknowledged experts, everyone you know has interests
knowledge. Your neighbour or coworker may be interested in sailing, dog
training, classic automobile restoration, and would probably love a
tell you more on that topic. (It's amazing how much information people
willing to share, if they have the time and you ask nicely, telling
Look at the variety of magazines on the
shelves in stores; look at
that cover topics outside your usual area of interest. Buying and
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.
good research is learning how to double-check. People will confidently
false information: sometimes out of malice or self-interest, but more
because they're not questioning their own knowledge. So part of
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
a look around the house and see what other resources there might be. Go
library or a bookstore, check what courses are offered by your
college, go exploring on the web. Is there something you've been
about or wanting to learn more about? Say you've been curious about
Edsel (often given as a prime example of corporate failure): you can of
look it up in the index at the library, or search for "Edsel" in your
search engine. But would you think to look for the address
(It exists - it's the web page of the Edsel club, and includes quite a
information on that car and its history. And this is an example I
random for the purpose of this exercise.)
Trust serendipity: if your research takes
you in an unexpected
you learn something other than what you were looking for, that's fine!
Second, dig a bit deeper into the topic.
Find *one* interesting
information - something you didn't know before that you find
find at least one alternate source that either confirms or contradicts
Remember - sometimes finding out that
something is *not* true is
important than finding out that it is! So try to challenge some of the
you've heard and accepted as true. For example, you might go to sites
www.urbanlegends.com or www.snopes.com and poke around till you find
that makes you think "is that so?" (Remember - the exercise then asks
find supporting or contradictory information.)
When you've done this research, post your
submission to the list
- 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
post, instead of commenting on the writing or content, try to add to
information, and/or to suggest other sources of information on that
This can come from your current knowledge, or you can do some further
of your own. When doing this, remember that the goal is not to argue
true or not true, but instead to learn to look for information that
us make that decision!
Of course, there's a limit to how much we
can find out in a one-week
On the other hand, it's often amazing what a few minutes of research
up. And remember to let your mind run free, and look for opportunities
learn. (For example, I used the word "serendipity" above - were you
with that word? Do you know its origins? The first step in research is
questions, then pursuing the questions that seem most interesting. If
leads to other questions, that's often a good thing - and it certainly
the purposes of this exercise.)
Be creative! Have fun!
Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: April 13, 2003
Thanks to everyone who participated this
week - so much interesting
was posted that I wasn't able to keep up with all of it!
My goal with this exercise was to remind
us that research need not
be hard or
dry or boring, nor does it need to involve hours and days in dusty
(though never forget the value of libraries - they still contain better
information, on the whole, than the chaotic Web.) I think the
showed that - research can be fun, and good research draws on multiple
(This week, most of the research was done on the Web - due in part to
nature of the exercise - but we also saw people consult people they
knew, go to
books or family papers, and so on.)
The critiques did not quite live up to my
hopes - the exercise said:
add to the information, and/or to suggest other sources of information
topic." The next time we run this exercise, I'll remove that "try";
there is little value in a critique that says "good information, good
without adding something more.
So to conclude, remember to recognize
opportunities to learn, and to
more about the worlds we live in.
Web site created by
Rhéal Nadeau and
the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.