Whether they write fiction or nonfiction, most writers I know do research. Almost as many believe that if they find a fact three times they can trust that it’s true.
Unfortunately, that’s nothing but myth. You can find a piece of misinformation just as many times as you can find an accurate fact. The reasons for this vary.
Once something is published and in circulation, other people can cite it. That’s fine if it is accurate, but if it isn’t, you now have the same inaccurate information published in multiple places. It can also happen if the information is being published to push a certain agenda. The end result is sometimes more important than the accuracy of the information.
The reality is that finding something multiple times doesn’t make it true. It just means that it is well-circulated. Here are three tips to help you separate accurate fact from well-published nonsense:
- Group the facts. After you’ve done some reading on your topic, you are going to see certain bits of information repeated again and again. You will also begin to notice schools of thought – Group X has gathered facts that prove global warming while Group Y has just as many facts that debunk it. As you read material from each school of thought, consider how their biases will shape which “facts” they choose to present and which they ignore completely.
- Go to the top. Some schools of thought are easy to dismiss. Now that we’ve seen the Earth from space, we can dismiss Flat Earth supporters. But what about your topic? It may not be as obvious. Look for an expert who isn’t a strong supporter of either school of thought or at the very least questions both. Reading what this person has written may be enough to help you separate fact from fiction. If not, ask for an interview.
- Read and research even more. Have you reached the point in your research that everything you read duplicates something you’ve already read? If the answer is no, keep reading. Once you’ve read to this point, you’ll be surprised how obvious these bits of misinformation are and you’ll wonder why you didn’t spot them sooner.
No matter what you write, you need to know how to separate fact and fiction as you research.
Sue will be teaching one of our courses, Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults, starting October 7, 2013.