Writing Well: An Embarrassment of Riches

An Embarrassment of Riches

Author! Author!

The average professional (that's you!) is required to read about four million words a month—that's 50 million words a year. In the medical profession alone, more than 10 thousand professional journals are published yearly.

Evaluating sources is nothing new; writers have always had to assess the reference material they find. But courtesy of the new electronic search techniques and burgeoning Internet resources, the task has taken on a new urgency.

Writer's Block

Just because a source appears in print, in the media, or online doesn't mean it's valid.

In the good old days, a writer only needed to consider the quality of books, magazines, and journal articles; now, printed matter is just the beginning of the information available to the researcher. Further, in the past, editors, publishers, and librarians chose much of the material we could expect to find. Today, however, most online sources haven't been evaluated at all, so it's all in our hands. Besides, you can access everything online from the comfort of your own home. As a result, much of what you see won't even make it to the library's shelves.

What does this mean for you? It means that before you decide to use any source, you have to judge its reliability, credibility, and appropriateness. Here's how to do it.

As you gather your sources, give them all the once over—and more than once. Use the following criteria as you determine whether a source is valid for inclusion in your research paper:

  1. Authority
  2. Source
  3. Timeliness
  4. Bias
  5. Purpose
  6. Appropriateness

Let's look at each criterion in detail.

Who's the Boss?: Authority

Write Angles

There are a growing number of review tools for online materials. Among the best are Webcrawler's Best of the Net, Lycos Top 5%, and Gale's Cyberhound Guide.

Don't believe that all sources are created equal, because it's just not so: Some sources are more equal than others. That's because they were prepared with greater care by experts in the field and have been reviewed by scholars, teachers, and others we respect for their knowledge of the subject.

Writer's Block

Warning: The writer's education and academic degrees must match the field in which he or she is claiming expertise. Having a medical degree in brain surgery, for example, doesn't give someone the credentials to write about rocket science—or any other subject outside his or her field.

Don't be afraid to make value judgments about the source materials you find. Some sources are more reliable than others. As a result, they carry greater authority and will help you make your point in your research paper. You can use the following checklist to weigh the authority of the material you're contemplating using:

  • Is the author named? Unless you're working with an encyclopedia article or an editorial, the author should be credited in a by-line.
  • Are the author's credentials included? Look for an academic degree, an e-mail address at a college or university, and/or a list of publications.
  • Based on this information, can you conclude that the writer is qualified to write on this subject?
  • For example, is the person an expert or an eyewitness to the events described in the source?
  • In addition, does the person have a good reputation in this field?
  • Was the source well-reviewed by other recognized authorities in the field? (Was the source even reviewed at all?)
  • Is the source complete, or have certain facts been cut for their controversial nature or for space limitations?
  • Does the author document his or her claims with other source materials? Are these sources credible?

Be especially suspicious of sources that claim to have the “secret” or “inside track” on a subject. If you can't find the same information in other sources, the material doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Give it the boot.

Now think about the source of the source.

What's Behind Curtain #3?: Source

As you evaluate the materials you located, consider where the source comes from, its sponsoring agency, publisher, and so on. For example, portable sources, such as CD-ROMs and encyclopedias, are like printed books—they have credited writers and publishers. In addition, they change only when a new version is issued. As a result, you can determine their value as you would a book.

Online sources, in contrast, may be published anonymously, so you can't evaluate the writer(s). Also, they can be updated and revised without notification, which means there could be a lot of fingers in that pie. Most frustrating of all, the Web site may vanish without warning. This makes it difficult to evaluate its reliability as well as its origin. It's tough to work with something invisible.

Ask yourself these questions as you consider the source of a reference piece:

  • Can I find the source of this reference piece? If not, it gets the heave-ho.
  • Is the source reputable? The best sources are well known; they appear on lists of “recommended” books or sites.
  • Does the piece come from a place known for its authority, such as a reputable publisher or sponsored Web site? If the answer is yes, you've likely got a keeper. If the answer is no, throw the source overboard—or consider it with a leery eye.

The Web is a fabulous reference source (as well as a great place to hang out when there's nothing on TV), but it requires special evaluation. It is tempting to judge all online sources as equally valid, but you're too smart for that. Remember: Be very sure that any online source you locate is valid and reliable before you use it in your writing (or for anything else).

It's All Relative: Timeliness

Write Angles

To find reference materials that have withstood the test of time, ask academic librarians or follow the discussion in an academic MOO or Listserv. You'll hear the same titles and authors coming up over and over.

As we learned from Uncle Albert years ago, time is relative. If you're writing a research paper on a very current topic, the date of publication or posting is crucial, since you're going to need some contemporary data. But you're also likely to include some traditional, “classic” reference materials to give your paper the weight and authority it needs. As a general rule of thumb, go for a mix of time-honored and recent reference materials. This helps balance your outlook, tempering the current with the classic.

Timeliness is a crucial issue with Web sites, since cyberspace is cluttered with piles of outdated sites. Sometimes people post the information and move on to something new. The site hangs out there, forgotten and woefully outdated. Always check the dates on any Web sites to find out when the material was posted and last updated.

Find the Hidden Agenda: Bias

Every source is biased, because every source has a point of view. Bias is not necessarily bad, as long as you recognize it as such and take it into account as you evaluate and use the source. For example, an article on hunting published in Field and Stream is likely to have a very different slant from an article on the same subject published in Vegetarian Times.

Word Watch

Reducing a complicated argument to mockery is called over-simplification.

Bias in reference sources can take many forms. First, a writer or speaker can lie outright. Or, a writer may be more subtle, inventing false data that masquerade as “facts.” In addition, dishonest writers often twist what their opponents have said. To misrepresent this way, they reduce a complex argument to ridicule or skip over an important element. These problems all result from oversimplification.

Sometimes you can evaluate the bias of an online source by its suffix, the last part of its URL. Here's the crib sheet:

Suffix Meaning
.com Commercial (business or company)
.edu Education (academic site)
.gov Government
.int International organization
.milMilitary organization
.netInternet administration
.orgOther organizations, including nonprofit, nonacademic, and nongovernmental groups
.sciSpecial knowledge news group
Author! Author!

Outside the United States, domain names often end with an abbreviation for the country of origin. For example, .au is Australia, .ca is Canada, and .uk is the United Kingdom. Another common abbreviation is .edu. It stands for an educational institution, all the way from elementary schools to universities. These are often very reliable sites because they post only verifiable information.

Each site has its own bias. A business site is going to have a different slant from a university site, for example. Any intelligent business will want to sell you a product or a service, while the university is probably seeking to disseminate knowledge. As a result, knowing the source of the site can help you evaluate its purpose and assess any possible bias.

Writer's Block

The name “junk mail” says it all; when it comes to reference sources, junk mail doesn't make the cut because it is largely comprised of advertisements.

Bias has another aspect when it comes to the Web. Books don't have ads, and most of us skim the magazine ads. (Except for my husband—the ads bother him so much that he rips them out before he reads the magazine. Gotta love a man like that.)

But Web sites can have commercial intrusions. Not only are some Web sites filled with ads, but the ads can also flick on and off in search engines. This makes them hard to ignore, and there's no way to rip them out.

These ads reflect the commercial nature of some Web sites. What you see on the screen may reflect who's footing the bill. This bias is subtle but nonetheless important.

How can you avoid being misled by biased reference materials? Here are some issues to consider as you evaluate a print or online text for misrepresentation:

  • Is someone quoted out of context?
  • Are facts or statistics cited in a vacuum?
  • Does the quotation reflect the overall content of the source, or does it merely reflect a detail?
  • Has key information been omitted?

To protect yourself against biased sources and your own bias, select reference materials that reflect opinions from across the spectrum.

Take Aim: Purpose

Different sources are written for different reasons. The following table summarizes some of the most common purposes you'll encounter. I've arranged the source in a loose hierarchy from most to least reliable, but stay tuned for more on that.

Source Purpose Authors Reviewed
scholarly books advance experts yes
and articles knowledge
serious books report experts; yes
and articles information professional
newsstand report facts professional yes
magazines writers;
newspapers report news reporters yes
sponsored Web report facts; varies sometimes
sites sell products
personal Web varies experts to rarely
sites novices
Listservs discuss topics anyone no
Usenet newsgroups discuss topics anyone no

The most reliable sources are written by experts and have been reviewed by equally reputable readers. However, these sources alone may not be enough to make your point in print. Read on, partner.

Write Angles

As you evaluate a Web source, see if the links are active, authoritative, and reliable.

Good Fit: Appropriateness

The value of a source depends not only on its quality but also on its use to you in a specific writing situation. No matter how weighty and reliable the source may be, if it's not on your topic, it gets the old heave-ho. For example, if you're writing a research paper on current events, you're going to need newspapers and magazines with the most up-to-date information, rather than books, since even the most recent ones are at least six months to a year old. You're probably going to use Web sites and Usenet newsgroups, too. Even though they lack the authority you want, they have the material you need.

Even if a source proves to be of high quality and free from bias, it doesn't necessarily mean that it belongs in your research paper. For a source to make the final cut, it has to fit with your audience, purpose, and tone. It must be appropriate to your paper. How can you decide if a source is suitable for inclusion in your research paper? Try these suggestions:

  • Do you understand the material in the source? If the source is too technical for you to grasp fully, you might not use it correctly in your paper.
  • Is the source written at a level appropriate to your readers?
  • Does the source have the information you need?
  • Does the source suit your purpose in this research paper?

In summary, all sources are not equally valid. Be sure to evaluate every source carefully and completely before you decide whether to use it in your research paper. Weak or inaccurate sources can seriously damage your credibility as a writer and thinker.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.