Tuesday, December 12

Online Writing: The Importance of Research

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While it’s important to follow good SEO practices in writing online to draw initial page views, articles that are light on content won’t hold them. Adding value to your articles with research ensures a steady supply of readers. Black-hatters stuff wads of meaningless text around frequently searched keywords, but it’s unscrupulous and ultimately unwise. Don’t stoop to it in your own work.

Write With Authority

Whether they find your articles through search engines or just happen upon them while browsing, readers assume you’re writing from a position of authority. Once you prove them wrong, you’ve lost them.

In editorial pieces and reviews, you’re taking a position; supporting that position with research strengthens it immensely. If a reader skims your movie review and comes away with nothing more than “It was a cool movie and I liked it a lot,” he’s going to save myself the trouble of reading your other reviews as he can get the same insight from his kid nephew. Give him some background on the director’s past films or describe the true story on which the movie’s based and he’ll be back for more.

In factual articles, weak phrases like “studies have shown,” “some people believe,” and “many think that” tell readers nothing of substance. Which studies show it? Who believes it? Who thinks it and why? Anemic qualifiers weaken the authority that research lends your writing. Motivated readers will do their own research, but that takes them away from your article. Keep readers on your pages instead of sending them elsewhere to do the work you skipped. If your readers have to do their own research, they may well decide they don’t need you. Worse yet, they may find that you fed them misinformation.

Separate Fact from Fiction

Citing sources for common knowledge would leave your articles too choppy to read, but you must ensure that your knowledge truly is common. “Colds are caused by viruses” is a statement of common knowledge borne out by decades of research; “colds are caused by leaving the house with wet hair” is not. Unlike your grandmother who warns that you’ll catch your death going out with wet hair, you have a responsibility to back up your words. If you’re unsure about how common your “common knowledge” facts are, err on the side of caution and cite your sources according to APA style guidelines.

Writers are as prone as anyone else to believing falsehoods. If you’re unsure of your facts, check yourself. Many people believe (recognize that weak phrase?) that leaving the house with wet hair will result in a cold, but that doesn’t make it true. When the subject is serious or controversial–whether there is a link between vaccinations and autism spectrum disorders, for instance–careful research is essential to avoid spreading dangerous untruths. Presenting myths and opinions as facts is sloppy writing under any circumstances, but when your subject can affect lives, it’s a grave violation of your readers’ trust.

As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” When the overwhelming majority of evidence points in one direction, citing one Facebook page that denies it won’t impress many readers. Consider your sources carefully and question the impartiality of web sites that offer products for sale. Avoid using sites that rely on random readers to provide information as well; there’s no way to tell if the respondents are spreading their own misinformation.

Develop Your Expertise

Research doesn’t just educate your audience, it educates you. Although you may not be an expert on a subject when you begin your article, you’ll be incrementally closer to being one by the time you’re finished writing and researching it properly. The bigger your personal store of knowledge is, the easier it becomes to write and research future articles.

No one is above misremembering a fact or improperly attributing a quote, but even cursory research can spare you the embarrassment of doing so in print. For example, I recalled having read a famous P. T. Barnum quote that I planned to use in this article: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

Trouble is, P. T. Barnum didn’t say it. H. L. Mencken did. Nor was that quotation exact; the original read: “No one in this world, so far as I know…has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people,” a less catchy but more global bit of misanthropy. It took an extra minute to ferret out the original quote and the man who said it, but it was worth the time. I would’ve been red-faced to find that I’d made such a basic research error in an article about why research matters.

Presumably, any subject you tackle is one that interests you, so treat an interesting topic with respect and extend that same respect to your readers. Mr. Mencken was a wise and witty man, but I disagree with his sentiment; writers have lost readers by assuming that their audience comprised the “great masses of the plain people” and wouldn’t notice factual errors in a poorly researched article. Losing readers not only means losing money, but also losing face.

Sources: Mencken, H. L. (1975) A Gang of Pecksniffs (p. 121). New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House.

Nova Online, Interview with Carl Sagan.


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