Just like Alice, writers often find themselves scampering after the white rabbit and into Wonderland. Research can be one of the most enjoyable parts of crafting a well-written piece, but only if you are gathering your facts from the right place. Not every bottle that says “Drink Me!” me is a dependable source.
Separating the wheat from the chaff is key. You want to be able to get the facts you need quickly, and you need them to be both true and interesting.
Are Online Resources All Bad?
The beauty of the internet is that it contains just about every bit of information known to man. Unfortunately, separating truth from fiction can be difficult. Your goal is to quickly identify which sources are most reliable.
Fortunately, there are a few key items you can quickly scan for to help you determine whether the source is credible.
- Start with the domain. Generally, educational institutions (.edu) and government pages (.gov) are reliable. Organization websites (.org) are sometimes reliable, just make sure the organization is a real and reputable group that isn’t doctoring the truth to push an agenda.
- Check for author details. No author at all is usually a sign that you should keep looking for a source. Only use a source if the author is willing to share their name and stand behind their words.
- Check the date. You want the most up-to-date sources available. You don’t want to quote a study that was disproved last year.
- Look for outside sources. A website that links to their own research sources is an excellent find. Not only did they back up their facts, they also provided you with a handy list of other sources to check.
When surveying any online source, be critical. A site covered in ads and with poor spelling and grammar likely won’t make a good source—but it may give you some ideas on new rabbit holes to dive into.
What About Wiki?
Wikipedia is an easy target for criticism. Although it’s true that bad information makes its way onto Wiki’s pages fairly often, a lot more good information is held within this vast digital library.
For any difficult-to-research topic, Wikipedia is an excellent first destination. You can get a reasonably accurate overview of your subject quickly. This is priceless when you are writing about a topic you are unfamiliar with.
Even better, at the bottom of the page is a list of the sources used to write the Wikipedia entry. Chances are there will be at least one trustworthy source that you can use on this list. Worst case scenario: you may have to check out several of these sources to find what you need.
Is a Source Book Helpful?
Chances are you mainly write about the same few subjects. All writers like to develop their own areas of expertise and niches. You also likely go to the same sources quite often. So why not start building a sourcebook so you can find these sources when you need them?
The simplest way is to set up folders in your browser. Arranging them by subject is the best method, so you can scan and find what you need quickly. Don’t be afraid to rename the bookmark so it’s something you recognize easily. If you’re a visual person, Pinterest offers another way to organize your links. Just make sure you back them up! Few things are more frustrating than trying to find your favorite sources again after a computer meltdown.
How Do You Find These Sources?
Google is your friend when it comes to streamlining your searches. There are many search tricks out there, but one of the most useful is the targeted search string. Simply type in site:.edu or site:.gov, followed by your search string, if you are looking for something likely to be found on education or government sites.
Current events are another common research theme amongst writers. In Google, the tabs at the top are your best bet here—simply click the “news” tab and most results will be from reliable news outlets. Just make sure to vet these as you would any other potential source
A frustrating thing about online searches is the returns you get that you don’t need. For example, you are writing about Buffalo, Minnesota, but all the search returns are about Buffalo, New York. Simply erase all New York returns from your search by using the mighty hyphen: Buffalo-New York. Problem solved.
The best tip for a writer, though, is one that helps verify the reliability of a source. With this trick, you can find every other website that is citing the source you are considering. If your chosen source is linked to by other known reliable sources, you can be reasonably assured that it is legit. You can also quickly see if there are any reputable organizations disputing the information from your source. The search method to pull this off is short and sweet; just use link:[source URL]. For example, if you want to find references to the WritersDomain blog, just type: link:blog.writersdomain.com
Like any skill, the more you flex that research muscle, the better you will become at it. It may seem time-consuming and confusing when you first start traversing the rabbit hole, but in no time you will be able to head right to your destination and come back quickly with the info you need to write an authoritative piece.