How to Research Your Writing to Ensure Technical Accuracy
Science and technology are fundamental elements of many literary genres. Unfortunately, the depictions of these subjects in books and movies are entirely fiction. A classic example of this is in the movie Avatar, when the character played by Sigourney Weaver uses a micropipette. These hand-held instruments are used in a laboratory to move tiny, precise amounts of liquid from one tube to another. They’re a vital—and expensive—piece of lab equipment. There’s just one rule for using a micropipette: they must be held upright. If you turn a micropipette upside down, the liquid that it just picked up will get into the mechanism. And that’s exactly what Sigourney Weaver did while using a micropipette in Avatar. Amusingly, the makers of that micropipette, Eppendorf, even chided them about it on Twitter. The amount of lab equipment that’s irreparably destroyed on-screen would give university accountants a heart attack. Space explosions are another trope with no basis in real-world science. Space is a vacuum, so spaceships (and death stars) don’t explode in massive fireballs (fire requires oxygen). Realistically, a spaceship that loses hull integrity would decompress and implode. Oh, and you wouldn’t hear an explosion either, because sound waves also can’t travel through space’s vacuum.
Researching Your Writing: Source Reliability
These are just a few of the misconceptions that pervade popular science fiction. Many, if not most, could have been avoided if the writers spent some time doing research. During this crucial phase, not all sources are created equal. Let’s take a brief tour of the various places you might get information, from most accurate to least. The most scientifically accurate sources are the papers published in peer-reviewed journals, but these can be pretty dry for the casual reader. I personally read a lot of scientific reviews, which summarize the current state of knowledge about a topic while drawing on that literature. After that, textbooks and reference books tend to be very reliable information, though these (let’s be honest) are prohibitively expensive. Science media aimed at a general audience—such as PBS, The Scientific American, and National Geographic—lose some of the nuance, but are much more accessible to non-technical readers. Curated websites like Wikipedia are nice resources for casual reading and research, and tend to be updated as new discoveries emerge. Still, these are written and maintained by the general public, so use with caution. You’ll note that social media ranks as #997 in terms of scientific accuracy. Remember, social media companies are for-profit organizations. You don’t pay to use them, because you are the product. An increasing proportion of the “sources” you may encounter have paid to show up in your feed or search results. Simply put, anything served to you by a social media network should not be treated as factual information. Especially when you’re performing research that you plan to use for your own work.
How and Why to Ask an Expert
All of the things I’ve discussed so far are passive research sources—that is, materials you go find and read on your own. However, one of the best ways to research your writing is to ask a real-world expert. I do this all the time. For the past few years, I’ve hosted guest posts from numerous experts for my Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. If I need spaceship design advice, I can ask a Boeing engineer. If I need to know something about brains, I ask my go-to neuroscientist. This works well for two reasons: first, because real-world experts are usually versed in the current state of the art for their field. They don’t just read those research papers; they write some of them. Second, most scientists, engineers, and other professionals love talking about their work. All you need to do is find one and approach them the right way. If you’d like to ask an expert for advice, here are some tips to make sure it’s a pleasant experience for all parties involved:
- Do your homework. Give some thought to the technical subject in question (and how it applies to your story) before you start the conversation.
- Briefly provide some context. In a few sentences, summarize your story and how the technical element comes into play. This will help the expert understand what you’re looking for.
- Be considerate of their time. Experts don’t exist for the sole purpose of answering writers’ questions, so don’t monopolize their time. Keep your interaction polite, concise, and respectful.
- Recognize that you might need a different expert. People who work in medicine, science, and other technical fields tend to specialize. You might find out in the course of conversation that you need a different type of expert.
Balancing Accuracy with Story
You’ll probably get far more information from your research than you can actually use in your writing. It’s up to you to select the most important elements to convey on the page, and to leave the rest out. If you have to choose between telling a great story and being technically accurate, go with the former. Story should come first.
If you enjoyed this post, I highly recommend Dan Koboldt’s Putting the Science in Fiction. It’s a collection of expert advice from scientists, engineers, medical professionals, tech experts and more, who debunk the myths, correct the misconceptions, and help writers create more realistic yet engaging stories to satisfy discerning readers.
Dan Koboldt is the author of the Gateways to Alissia trilogy (Harper Voyager) and the editor of Putting the Science in Fiction (Writers Digest, 2018). As a genetics researcher, he has co-authored more than 70 publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other scientific journals. Dan is also an avid hunter and outdoorsman. Every October, he disappears into the woods to pursue whitetail deer with bow and arrow. He lives with his wife and children in Ohio, where the deer take their revenge by eating the flowers in his backyard.
Top tips for creative writing
Crafting an original work of fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction takes time, practice, and persistence. While there’s no exact science to creative writing, the following tips will help you get started:
1 Write about what you know
Beginning writers always get told ‘write what you know’, but it’s good advice. Use settings, characters, background, and language that you’re already familiar with and create new stories from the world that you already know. This is like using research you’ve already done. And remember, your background, what you bring to the act of writing, is as valid as what anyone else can bring.
2 Write about what you don’t know
Use your imagination to create new situations, new characters, new relationships, even new worlds. Choose to write about a different period in history, or a place that you’re not familiar with. Where your imagination needs help, fill in the gaps with research. The best thing about being a creative writer is creating.
3 Read widely and well
Writers love reading. Make yourself familiar with the published landscape of writing in your chosen field, whether it’s modern poetry, literary fiction, thrillers, short stories, or fantasy. Nothing encourages good writing like reading good writing.
4 Hook your readers
Nobody is forced to read your novel or short story, so it’s important to hook readers right away. Your opening sentence or paragraph should encourage them to continue, perhaps by making them laugh, or exciting their curiosity, or just making them want to find out what happens next.
Consider the intriguing sting in the tale of the opening sentence of George Orwell’s 1984:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
It seems like a very traditional opening and then – thirteen? You want to know more and so you read on.
Now look at the first sentence of Raymond Carver’s short story Viewfinder:
A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house.
Just a short sentence but with so much that we need to have explained. We’re hooked.
5 Get your characters talking
We find out about the people we meet through what they say to us, how they say it, their choice of words, their accents, their verbal habits. Readers should be able to do the same with fictional characters. People on the page really start to live when they start exchanging dialogue.
Writing dialogue needs a lot of work – making it fresh and authentic, editing repeatedly to get it right – but it’s worth the effort.
6 Show rather than tell
Too much description, too many adjectives and adverbs, can slow up your narrative and cause your readers to lose interest. Where possible, it’s better to show you readers what a person, the atmosphere in the room, the relationship between your characters is like – show, that is, by what they say, how they interact, what they do. It’s more effective than telling the reader through wordy piles of information.
This is a tricky one. You have to do some telling so it’s important not to become obsessive about avoiding it.
7 Get it right first time
Try to get your first draft as near perfect as possible. Few writers manage this kind of quality the first time but no one ever wrote great literature by aiming low. On the contrary, aim for the best and do your best from the very start.
8 Keep polishing
If you don’t get it right first time, you can do what most writers do – polish and perfect through the editing process. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that editing is the same as proofreading; it’s about much more than correcting errors. Rather, editing involves carefully going through your work to see what to leave out, what to change, finding out what you have to do to improve your writing, make it sharper, tidier, better.
Editing can be hard work. It’s said that Ernest Hemingway took the last page of A Farewell to Arms through nearly 40 drafts, so don’t give up if you feel you’re getting nowhere.
9 Make the most of your opportunities
Many aspiring writers claim they simply don’t have the time to make the most of their ideas. Yet, if you analyse a typical day, there are always those intervals – using public transport, waiting for a friend, time spent in the waiting room of the doctor or dentist – when it’s possible to pull out a writing pad, a laptop, a tablet and just write. Identify your opportunities – five minutes is enough to get a few sentences down – and use them.
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Creative Nonfiction: Writing about Fact and Truth
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Creative nonfiction involves writing about facts using literary devices, your memories or recollections, and your imagination. You can write about any topic, such as birth, love, sex, death, sports, travel, science, nature, and so forth. Often you will need to remember or recollect the details of what happened, especially if the event or story took place many years ago. Questions will arise about accuracy of the reporting, whether you are telling the truth, and your subjectivity and objectivity in presenting the truth. In addition, sometimes you will need to check your facts by interviewing friends or relatives who might not want you to write about them, or the event, or story. So, you will be faced with an ethical dilemma.
This article discusses how you draw the line between fact and fiction, gain trust from your readers, deal with ethical dilemmas, and determine your subjectivity and objectivity when writing creative nonfiction.
Drawing the Line between Fact and Fiction
In writing creative nonfiction, you must present facts accurately. You must be honest and truthful. Otherwise, you are writing fiction, a story that is made up.
To write factually and accurately, you will often need to conduct research. For instance, if you are writing a personal essay, you might have to visit the place where the event took place or contact friends and relatives who remember the event.
Even if you feel you know the facts, you will still need to complete some fact checking. You might have to look at old photos, conduct an interview, or read old journals, newspapers or magazines.
Sometimes the line between fact and fiction is ambiguous. Often the writer will need to make a judgement call. Some people believe that once a fact is distorted or embellished, it is fictional. Others believe that creative nonfiction that is based on memories or recollections will be distorted. Memories aren’t 100% accurate. The writer will have to engage in a certain amount of fabrication to present the facts. There is no objective record, only the memories and recollections of the writer about an event that happened in the past. For example, when using dialogue in a memoir, the writer will often have to “invent” the actual dialogue. There is no way the writer will remember every word that was spoken. The important point to remember is that the writer must do his/her best to remember accurately. To verify memories or recollections, the writer check the facts to be sure that his/her view is accurate.
In the essay Memoir? Fiction? Where is the Line?, Mimi Schwartz writes that the creative nonfiction writer can write about “emotional truth.” What she means is that if it feels true to you, you can write about it as though it were true. But you will need to warn your readers or provide them with a disclaimer. For instance, if you are going to write about a memory but cannot remember all the details, you can say any of the following:
- Perhaps she said…
- I imagine she said…
- To the best of my knowledge…
- As I recall…
Author Alice Laplante states in The Making of a Story that the number one rule of writing fiction is “accuracy, and the rigorous adherence to facts.”
Gaining Trust from Your Readers
When you write creative nonfiction, you are asking your readers to trust you, to believe you. But the readers trust must be earned. As the reader reads your personal essay, memoir, or travel piece, he/she might think : Do I trust this writer? Do I believe what he/she is saying? The best way to gain your reader’s trust is to tell the truth.
In writing about past events, you will struggle with memory and accuracy. There are no rules other than you must do your best to present the facts as you know them to be. For example, you might not know what your exact thoughts were on the day of the event, but you will remember the event, the date it took place, the consequences, and the significance for you. The key point to remember is to be honest with your memories. Don’t embellish them. As well, do some fact checking. You might have a diary or old photo or personal journal. Or you might be able to interview a friend or family member who can confirm your recollection. And write about the emotional truth that resulted from the event—-what it means to you, how you felt about the events that took place, what your views are .
To gain your reader’s trust, make your account as honest and interesting as you can—without fabricating it. This is how you will gain your reader’s trust, and make them believe in what you wrote.
In writing about real people and real events, you will sometimes need to consider ethics, such as the right to privacy and the betrayal of trust.
There is a need for full disclosure when interviewing and writing about real people and events. For instance, when interviewing a person, you must make it clear that you are collecting information for a story that you intend to write about. If you don’t disclose your intention to the person you are interviewing, you are being unethical. When writing about events that happened in the past, you will often need to obtain oral or written permission to avoid being unethical.
Sometimes a writer will not want to write about a true story because he/she will hurt or offend people who were participants in the story. For instance, if you are writing about child abuse, you might be reluctant to tell your story. Not only is it embarrassing, but it will upset or anger others who were aware of the events. On the other hand, if the person is deceased or estranged from you, you might be more willing to disclose this information. Often, ethical decisions are based on your own point of view: To show and tell becomes a matter of considering the costs and benefits.
Subjectivity Versus Objectivity
In writing your personal essay or memoir, you can be subjective. You can include personal opinions, thoughts, emotions—anything that is subjective. So, while the event must be presented objectively, you can interpret it subjectively, from your own point of view.
In some creative nonfiction, you will need to make a decision about point of view. Some writers believe that you can write in the first person point of view, using “I.” Obviously, if you are writing a personal essay, you will write in the first person. It is more intimate, more real, and natural. Moreover, you are the central character in the story.
But there will be times when you are not the central character. You might be just an observer of the story or events. The question is then whether to narrate your story in the first person or third person. For instance, if you want to tell the story as the events unfolded, you might want to use the third person “he/she.”It is more objective. Clearly, the decision to place yourself in the story or out of the story is a personal decision.
When writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal essay, memoir, or literary essay, you must remember that your writing needs to be based on fact, which must be accurate. You must present the facts to the best of your ability. You must also be ethical in conducting research and revealing personal information about other people. To gain your reader’s trust be honest with yourself and tell the truth. Finally, you can include your own perspective or point of view, but you must tell the truth.