The Role of Research in Writing

For many creative (and magazine) writers, “research” can be a scary idea. The word implies giant encyclopedias piled high around a rapidly scribbling writer with mad eyes and a surfeit of sleep. However, without research, our writing can become stale and less credible. How else can a story about pirates come to life?

It’s not like most writers have direct experience with swashbuckling heroes and villains. The details of a ship, from the creaking of the bow to the number of ship masts, serve to create the setting. For example, one of my favorite authors for children and readers of all ages, Brian Jacques, set his exciting tales on the high seas. He included historical details about The Flying Dutchman in one series, blending rumors and historical accounts with fantastic events.

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This series of nautical novels uses secondary research to build a realistic, vivid world.

The need for well-researched prose applies to “pure” fiction as well as journalistic or magazine styles. A writer’s research can of course come from personal experience, through careful observation of a potential character or situation as a writer (not a participant). However–particularly in magazine writing but also in fiction–secondary research from more official sources is often needed. Newspapers, public statistics, journal articles, and other secondary sources can help the writer become an expert on their subject.

Writing about something you understand–at least on the surface level–is usually much easier. And perhaps most importantly, the majority of writers will be writing about something completely foreign to them, whether it is skydiving or a professor with an eccentric hobby. If we as writers don’t know what we’re talking about, how can we expect our readers to do so?

[Note: This blog post was originally published on my first attempt at a blog on October 8, 2014]

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