What I've learned the hard way about researching on the Internet.
Being a writer of fiction and non-fiction, I wanted to share some avenues I've traveled in documenting and writing. I feel that even fiction books are stronger when the subject has been thoroughly investigated. As a writer, I consider my waking and sleeping hours fodder for my writing habit, and have many scratch paper notes about the house for future development. Anything of interest can produce an idea to write about later on.
When I write with pen and paper, I always have the dictionary and thesaurus that I've owned since college within reach. When composing online, I keep a window open to www.m-w.com in order to use their free dictionary and thesaurus. The most multi-dimensional word finder I know of is www.VisualThesaurus.com. Its bouncing webbed circles of related terms can turn into an afternoon fascination. They charge after a trial period, and do seem to have a limited set of words, as compared to a printed thesaurus.
Sometimes when I can't think of the word I want to write, I'll write in a blank line, and go back to it when I've finished my original thought. I'm in my happiest and most productive writing mode when I'm reclining on my sofa with the brightness of the sun lighting my reading, spiral notebook and pencil in my lap (writing on every other line to leave space for notes and questions and later corrections), flipping back and forth through pages in my well worn yellow Roget's, and picking up the gray Webster's with the semi-broken spine and cobra sticker, to make sure the meaning is exactly what I remember.
Which ever search engine you chose to use, such as my stand-bys, Google, AskJeeves, or Yahoo, choose specific query words with keywords in mind. Dogpile.com searches Yahoo, AskJeeves, and Google. Know what you're search is looking.
Experience using keywords within your own Writing.com articles can increase your worldly visibility by drawing in people from all over. Use as many related keywords or ideas as you possibly can, really 15 or 20--as many as will fit in the space allowed.
Searching the information contained in your own viewing statistics ("Stats") will tell you where your readers came from before they got to your particular piece of writing. It's interesting to see where your readers come from, or what they were looking for when they found you.
I was surprised to learn how many people found me from a Google search. In using "turban" as a keyword for "Meeting My Saudi Student - Chapter 6", I received several readers from the Middle East, some of whom were not Writing.com members. That chapter is currently on hold for a rewrite from the feedback I received. Writing.com is the place to read, write, and receive encouragement from each other!
Although I had experienced the situation in the novel myself, the way I worded my tale caused a great deal of ill will from a Middle Eastern gentleman who considered the entire thing too stereotypical to be worth reading. I thought I was just telling a series of facts, but he was quite irate. I was told that a white turban would never be worn in the scene I depicted, and that the clothing I described was inappropriate. He suggested I research Saudi Arabian culture and daily habits better. I thought I had. Oops. Not too late to fix it.
I took a small liberty with the truth, but luckily received feedback to lead me in the direction of a more accurate, and less stereotypical representation of a young man from the Middle East and how he would dress. Now I'm working my way through government hosted sites, tourist sites, and working my way toward the information I need. Research is more accurately thought of as a process rather than an answer to a question.
Know what your selected search engine searches. As I understand, Yahoo contains only Yahoo sites in its search. Being able to add "quotations" around specific keywords will narrow your search field. Using the "+" sign to add, or "-" in order to exclude from your search, will also help narrow your search results.
I personally like to ask Jeeves sometimes, because his search box readily accepts sentence-like questions. To rely on only one search engine is probably not best. Although all search engines will give you similar results, try several before you commit to heavy reading. Research time is never wasted, but there's no sense spinning your wheels either.
Which ever search engine you choose, read quickly over the first search results page before you automatically click on the first link to read. What is listed first is not necessarily the information you are seeking. Scan the paid link adds on the page if you think they will tell you what you want to know, but consider the source. On everything, consider the source.
Scanning your search results page to see who and where the information in each particular link is coming from is a time efficient habit to develop. Since this information is always listed in a different color, scanning quickly down the page in this column will tell you who is giving you the information and where it is coming from. I often choose my link to follow based on the site address, rather than the first few words of introduction given on the results page.
If you are looking for hard factual evidence, don't go to a site whose address is obviously for commercial purposes, or extremely biased. Just because words are in print, that doesn't make them true . It's good to have at least two sources for non-fiction writing.
In searching, many times you will get a hit that leads you to a book, which is available for purchase but not sufficient perusal on line for gaining the information you seek. I'd check at my public or local college library before purchasing a book. Library cards don't cost. Additionally, the library shelves are a great place to browse on a hot summer day. Credible information you find, in addition to that found on the Internet, will strengthen your writing and researching skills. For a researcher, the library is a home away from home.
When searching on the Internet, in most instances, an ".edu," ".org," or .gov will be more reference information oriented that a ".com" or ".net." Again, consider your source. Do you want government statistics to make a point, or are you seeking specific details on the lifestyles of the rich and famous to add to your writing? Start by deciding which are the better options to follow for your specific need. Personally, I often get sidetracked by other questions that occur when I'm searching. It's better to make yourself a note to go back to other ideas later and complete the task at hand.
A personal interest sparked my passion to write "Looking for a Peace Train". When I heard on the news that one of my former favorite singers, Cat Stevens, had been sent away from the United States because the name "Yusuf Islam" appears on the "No Fly" list, I was outraged. The young man who wrote songs that helped me develop a comfortable soul had certainly not become a terrorist. Soon after the story hit the media, Cat Stevens, who had converted to Islam in the 1970s and changed his name, appeared on the Larry King show. Also, Mr. Islam wrote a letter to an American newspaper in reply to his situation. I saw the show and read the article, taking hand scribbled notres all the way. Several drafts later, I got most of my personal anger out of the article. Facts inflamed with emotion don't rank at the top of the pile, unless you are journaling. I've discovered that there's a type of writing for every mood I have. Hard research isn't the creative portion of the writing process.
The first hit I got for information about the no fly incident of Cat Stevens was at www.CatStevens.com, which contains a lot of information, past and present, as well as chat boards. The wealth of information and contacts inspired me to start a short story based on his life, which remains barely started "Stephen". This site also linked to his primary site in the UK, and detailed much of his charitable and religious activities since he left the music world. Of course, this site had no "anti" information to get the other side of the story. A reviewer's opinion about my article showed me there is another side. There can always be one more re-write.
I'm proud of "Still Looking for a Peace Train" because of the amount of heart I put into the piece. Another reviewer pointed out to me that I have two themes running through the article: one about Cat Stevens life and deeds, and another about the misappropriation of government authority associated with the Patriot Act. He suggested separating into two articles. So I'm still thinking about how to deal with this. Writing is a process--it only seems never ending.
While writing my second novel "Ghetto Gandhi: the Urban Legend", I was fortunate again to benefit from the comments of reviewers. The novel is still in progress, but during the early stages I did a bad thing.
In order to explain the extensive information on schizophrenia, I cut and pasted a long section. My mind suddenly turned into that of a high school student, trying to complete the assignment as quickly as possible, and be done with it. I did cite the reference at the end, but my reviewer was correct in telling me I was relying on somebody else's exact words to carry my meaning. It wasn't plagerism, but it wasn't right either. The result was choppy, ending in minute details. I ended up using the reference material I had copied in order to better develop the plot and character. This was much more difficult, but the process I needed to go through to write what I needed to write. This is the bloody guts of writing that strains, but strengthens.
I researched one of my works "Noteworthy Bipolars", most thoroughly because one of my reviewers questioned one on the entries. Non-fiction requires absolute proof. This article brands certain individuals as bipolar, and bringing this list together required no second hand, "he said, she said." I began with the bipolar section of www.About.com. I have found the various specialties of www.About.com to be reliable. They have a long list, and this was the list with which I started.
Since writing the article several bipolar individuals have appeared on "Oprah," "Larry King," or other televison shows talking about their experiencess. Those were added at the top of the article, and will continue to be added to for the time being. I used another very long list included in Kay Redfield Jamison's book also. I hope to expand this article in the future with bios, but that will include much Internet research. Although the article is basically just a list now, it has the potential to develop into paragraphs of purposeful information, perhaps even a magazine article.
My writing is always in flux, developing, as I work to do well what I love to do. Writing.com is the most fabulous place for writers. I write, exploring my own thoughts, and share online. When I have the opportunity, I tutor kids on writing and reading, and teach English as a Second Language students. I'm in the "Going Pro Group" and hope to publish this year. Good advice to all: "Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars," and keep a pen and paper handy.