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Unlike the other discovery techniques, which mostly call on your internal powers of observation and imagination, this one emphasizes investigation and research. However vast your store of information and however well you can express your ideas, you'll often need to extend your knowledge by drawing on the experience and expertise of others.

However vast your store of information and however well you can express your ideas, you'll often need to extend your knowledge by drawing on the experience and expertise of others.

Think of this inquiry as a normal part of writing, not just something reserved for a "research paper." The difference between a substantive exploratory essay and a research paper is one of degree rather than of kind. The best research papers grow out of original ideas or intriguing questions that you want to explore in depth, and the best essays show that you are well-grounded in your subject. Whether your knowledge-gathering takes place mostly at the library, in the field, or on the web, it's good to prepare ahead.


At the Library

If you aren't familiar with your library's resources, call in advance, explain your purpose, and ask for a tour. Even if you know the library pretty well, go to the Reference Room and introduce yourself. Describe your project and ask if they have resources you might not be aware of. Ask experts you've interviewed (including professors) where they get their information and follow the trail.

When you find a good source, check it out or photocopy it. If you photocopy it, be sure to copy the publication information (date, volume number, etc.) so you can document the source later. (See Documenting Your Sources.) If the book or article you've found contains a Bibliography or Works Cited, use it. Find and read the works listed there. Stay on the information trail.


8.4 Use the library to locate as much information as possible on one of the following topics, or use a subject you're currently interested in writing about. When you're finished, write up a short report telling how the experience went: what you wanted to learn, what difficulties you experienced, what you did learn, and how the information might be useful. Possible subjects: nuclear submarines, Charles Mingus, the great vowel shift, passenger pigeons, biodiesel fuel, Florence Nightingale.


In The Field

Along with visits to the library, make time for direct investigation in the field. Don't hesitate to get involved by visiting important sites, interviewing people, and surveying opinion.

Direct Observation

Though not all subjects lend themselves to direct observation, many do. If you're writing about competition in co-ed in junior high school physical education classes, for instance, you might arrange to visit a few such classes. Watch, listen, take notes on your observations. Perhaps use a handheld recorder. You might want to attend a few such classes at different grade levels and at different schools. Then you could visit some all-boys' or all-girls' classes for comparison. Then when you've finished, spend some time writing reflectively on what you noticed.

Of course, you'll need to talk to the teacher beforehand to get permission and discuss how you can observe without interfering. But this could be a good time to ask the teacher for an interview. Maybe you could also interview a few students to get their perspectives on coed physical education.


Your younger sister might be an expert on video games. Your father might be an expert on baking bread. A real estate agent could give you information on recent trends in home prices. A horse breeder could describe modern branding techniques. A stock broker could explain margin buying. Experts are all around us--in all ages, genders, and races--and most will be eager to share their knowledge if you approach them courteously and with a genuine display of interest.

Before interviewing an expert, however, you should prepare by clarifying what you're looking for. Do some preliminary exploration of your subject with freewriting, the journalists' questions, and the other probing techniques. Focus your concerns into master questions and sub-questions. Compile a list of topics you want to cover. Make an appointment, and tell the expert that you need the information for a writing project. Ask if you may tape the interview. Make clear that you'll give the expert credit in the final essay. Offer to give the expert a copy. In short, be serious and professional in your approach. If you are, you'll be amazed at how much information you can gather.

You might also consider giving a written interview, a short list of pertinent questions to which the interviewee can respond briefly in writing. Somewhere between a traditional interview and a survey, a written interview assures that you get exact quotes and can even be conducted by email.


8.5 Locate an expert on one of the following subjects, or use a subject you're currently interested in writing about, and set up an interview. Before going, do some homework on the subject and arrive with a list of questions.

Afterward, write up a short report telling how the experience went: what you wanted to learn, what difficulties you experienced, what you did learn, and how the information might be useful. Possible subjects: homeopathic medicine, self-defense, home insulation, co-dependency, credit ratings, impressionist painting.


Like written interviews, surveys ask people to put their ideas in writing, but surveys are distributed to groups and are generally more highly structured. Surveys look for patterned responses in order to gauge public opinion.

Making up, administering, and tabulating a survey can be quite rewarding. To return to the Physical Education example, you could survey all P.E. teachers in a school system, all students in all classes you observe. Then you could compare the students' responses with the teachers'. Or you could compare responses from the coed classes with responses from the all boys' and all girls' classes.

Again, you would want to clear this with the teacher. The two of you might go over the questions beforehand to help refine and structure your list.


On The Web

These days it's easy to forget that the Internet and the World Wide Web began as academic research networks. But they did, and today the Internet's potential as a research tool is even more apparent. On listservs and in newsgroups, scholars informally discuss the most recent developments in their fields. Private research centers and government agencies accept grant applications, conduct peer reviews, and publish papers online. By conducting a few effective searches you should be able to turn up several excellent sources on almost any topic.

But the Internet also has a lot of what scholars call "noise"--unreliable, misleading information that interferes with the research effort, like static disturbing a radio station. Besides locating sources, then, it's also important to evaluate those sources for quality of information and for relevance to your topic.

Effective Searching

To get the most from Internet research, you need to "cast a wide net." The resources listed below are only a few of the excellent search engines available on the Web. Experiment with a few different ones. Even if you have a favorite, trying some new search engines, and practicing with your query language (read each site's instructions) will help you get a wide ranging search with relevant results, sorted to your needs.

AltaVista is almost always ranked highly for thoroughness and for allowing carefully worded queries, but is sometimes considered difficult to use.

HighBeam searches for magazine and newspaper articles on topics of your choice. These can be organized and arranged in folders for future reference. It is a subscription site with limited free fea tures and a free trial of all features.

HotBot is a powerful and highly regarded search engine associat ed with Lycos. It organizes responses into categories of relevance.

Google has become a favorite first choice for most web users. It is noted for sorting and ranking results well to match a user's inter ests. Its clean, simple interface may be welcome if you're feeling overwhelmed by possibilities, but Google is not good at allowing complex queries.

Metasearch allows you to query several search engines at once. The results are well sorted, and precise queries are possible.

Yahoo! contains vast categories of sites arranged hierarchically. Besides browsing the listings, you can search them, but the search will not be as extensive as some others.

Northern Light organizes your results into folders to help you find categories of response. It has a vast database and takes a spe cial interest in academic research. is a solid, well-organized resource that emphasizes education and organizes sites into categories like Yahoo! Because the categories are maintained by people rather than web bots, covers less of the web than the big search engines, but makes up for that by being high on quality.


Sorting and Sifting

While a good search engine may return hundreds of sites, only a few of those may prove useful. Explore all possibilities to turn up what you can. Then sort, prioritize, evaluate.

Many sites will be rejected as low quality or not relevant to your topic. Bookmark other sites of interest for future reference. Pick a few of the highest quality, most relevant sites to explore in depth.

How current is the site? Check to see when the site was last updated. Many sites will have this information displayed in either a header or a footer on each page. Bad links, sloppy grammar and mechanics, and poor navigation features are other signs that a site isn't up to the standard of professionalism that you want from your sources. Compare the quality of the site's information, design, and writing with other sites you've visited.

Who sponsors the site? Is the site sponsored by a governmental agency or by a university? If so, it may have more surface credibility than a site published by an advocacy group or by an individual. The Center for Disease Control or The Johns Hopkins Medical School, for instance, would be good places to look for information on Multiple Sclerosis. But what about a small personal website detailing one person's struggle with the disease? That could be valuable, too, depending on how you intend to use the information.

Who created the site, and why? Is the author identified? Look for an "About" page to learn who created the site and why. Check the author's credentials. Do you see any advanced degrees or publications or professional affiliations?