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The Complete Writer: Journalistic Research *FREE READS*

The Complete Writer
Part III

Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 16. Journalistic Research

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

The first step in research is at once the easiest and the most difficult: Think.

Any information-gathering project, whether it’s heavy on interviews, Google, and personal observation or whether it requires lots of legwork in public records, archives, and libraries, starts with a systematic, organized approach. Before you begin, you should consider where you will find your material and how you will dig it out.

The basic steps to journalistic research are three: first, gain a broad overview of the subject; second, learn about it in some depth, and third, find and interview knowledgeable people.

Before we begin discussing these techniques, here’s a caveat: this chapter reviews important, easily accessible reference works and information sources suitable for most feature-writing. Before you undertake an investigative article, though, you should take a course in investigative journalism and work on-staff with an experienced editor. Investigative reporting is not for amateurs.

Getting Started

Seasoned reporters will tell you the key to a successful interview is simple: do your homework first. Learn enough about your assignment to speak intelligently with your sources. Nothing turns an interviewee off faster than a writer’s total ignorance of the subject.

Thus, while the interview is the journalist’s most important research tool, it comes last. It’s the culmination of your research, undertaken only after considerable reading, legwork, and thought.

Be aware, by the way, that researchers divide sources into two broad types: primary and secondary. A primary source is a person who has direct knowledge of an event. Among primary sources are witnesses whom you might interview, letters or reports by people who were on the scene, and depositions or court testimony of witnesses. A secondary source is a report from someone who knows about the subject or event but did not actually witness it. Take, for example, an airplane crash. Primary sources are the survivors, the people who saw the crash, and data from the plane’s black box. Secondary sources are Federal Aviation Authority reports; comments from other aviation experts; writing about air safety in general; interviews with friends and relatives of the victims; and newspaper, television, and magazine accounts.

Does this mean that any one-on-one interview is a primary source? No! You could, for example, talk to someone who speaks from hearsay. If the individual was not at an event, did not witness it firsthand, then he or she is not a primary source. But if the person is an expert on a subject—say, a scientist explaining her experiments in killer bee biology—then she is a primary source. So, among interviewees, primary sources include witnesses, participants, and experts directly involved in an action or study. Secondary sources include gossips, people who know someone who was involved in the action, and experts speaking in general about other experts’ findings.

Beginners sometimes jump to the conclusion that anything printed is a secondary source. Again, the distinction depends on whether its writer is “on the scene” of the subject at hand. For example, an article on killer bees written by our entomologist and based on her research would be a primary source. A story written by a reporter, or even by an expert whose article is a reprise of other people’s research, would be a secondary source. Diaries, letters, and journals are largely primary sources. An autobiography is a primary source. A witness’s statement is a primary source; a report by a police officer who came upon an accident minutes after it occurred may contain primary and secondary material.

Often, you must weigh the credibility of your sources. Let’s say you need to understand the latest developments in superconductivity. That has something to do with physics. But because it is a specialized and fast-changing subject, just any physicist won’t do. You must be sure your physicist has real expertise about your subject.

How do you find out? First, ask! What is your specialty? What expertise do you have about this specific topic? What have you published about it, and where? Then verify the person’s credentials with colleagues: ask other physicists about his or her reputation. Remember, too, that most people have some ax to grind: try to identify your expert’s biases and keep them in mind as you consider what you hear.

Given a project about which you know little or nothing, you should first get the answers to a few key questions:

  1. Who knows about this subject and cares enough to publish an article or book about it?
  2. Where can I find these articles or books?
  3. Will this story have a local or a national slant, and how will that affect my choice of sources?

Who Knows?

The answer to this question may be less obvious than it seems. Suppose, for example, you’re asked to write a story about senior citizens who keep their jobs past the traditional retirement age. Your editor wants you to focus on two or three successful individuals, weaving in lots of solid information about who hires them and why; why seniors continue to work; the issue’s political aspects; and the advantages and disadvantages to the worker, the employer, and the larger society.

At the start, all you know about the subject comes from a McDonald’s television ad highlighting the company’s experiment with senior workers. You make a note to call someone at McDonald’s national headquarters, whose telephone number you may obtain from the company’s webpage.

First, though, you consider which organizations might be involved with the subject. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) comes immediately to mind. This group concerns itself with anything that affects senior citizens economically. You hazard a guess that something on older workers has already appeared in the AARP Magazine.[1]

Your state has a governor’s commission on aging: this will be a good source of local information. The National Council on Aging is another likely source, as is the Service Corps of Retired Executives, which has both national and local agencies. Naturally, you contact the Social Security Administration’s Press Office.[2]

Come to think about it, you recall legislation eliminating the mandatory retirement age. This means various government agencies have heard testimony on the question of whether older people should be permitted to continue working indefinitely. It also means the subject has some “hot” topics that probably have attracted academic sociologists and psychologists. And it means that at some point the subject surely has been in the news.

If the government started telling business it can’t force workers to retire, then various industries searched out ways to respond. Business and trade publications must have reported on their solutions.

Older workers may have higher health-care costs. This means group insurance providers will have a vested interest in your subject. You make a note to call several major insurers.

Speaking of health, folk wisdom tells you that people who stay active as they age stay healthier and happier. You wonder if that’s so, and if it is, what are the implication for America’s aging Baby Boomers, for industry, and for our society in general. This is the subject matter of sociology and psychology.

Now you have a good idea of where to begin:

  1. With national newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Christian Science Monitor
  2. With special-interest consumer magazines targeted at older readers
  3. With business and trade publications
  4. With government publications
  5. With sociological or psychological journals

These are arranged in order of descending accessibility and ascending difficulty. To gain the quick overview you need before you begin speaking with sources, start with the first two or three sources. More detailed familiarity will come from professional journals and congressional testimony. For a light story, you may not have to dig that deep. If you’re doing a long, serious piece of a book, you’ll go to all these sources and more.

Later—after you’ve done your preliminary reading—you’ll search out:

  1. Executives or public relations representatives for companies that hire older workers, who may refer you to . . .
  2. Workers willing to let you highlight their stories
  3. Employment counselors experienced with older workers
  4. Spokespersons for senior citizens’ groups, such as AARP
  5. Other experts, academic, governmental, and other
  6. Spokespersons for insurance carriers, if you decide that aspect is relevant to your story

Finding Overview Articles

Magazine, newspaper, and journal articles are easily accessible through Google. Choose your keywords carefully, keeping in mind Boolean structure (“x and y” vs. “x or y” or “x not y”). Try to think from general to specific. Break the subject into several main concepts, and then come up with some synonyms for each. For example, “old” means “aged”; “worker” can mean “employee.”

For the story on working senior citizens, then, you might come up with these key words:

  • Age discrimination
  • Aged, employment of
  • Employees, aged
  • Employees, senior
  • Employees, older
  • Older workers
  • Senior citizens and work
  • Senior citizens and employment
  • Working in retirement
  • Mandatory retirement

A search of these keywords will bring up a bonanza of general-information articles, websites, and blog posts. Use some discrimination: try to identify sites and publications that are well established and likely to be fact-checked.


These are always good, Google notwithstanding. Take yourself to a decent library: a city, college, or university institution. Don’t be shy about talking to the librarian: helping the customer is their job.

Use the library’s databases to seek out your keywords, those that you’ve brought with you and any suggested by the librarian.

Again, look for books by experts. Those published by university presses are likely to be reliable, as are some that are published through mainline, traditional publishers. Look at the sources; check for endnotes or footnotes, and examine these carefully for credibility.

Scientific and Scholarly Research

Back to Google. You can cut out most but not all of the woo-woo that comes up in a Google search by using Google Scholar:

This search engine focuses, mostly, on articles in academic journals. Enter your search terms here and you’ll call up a number of scholarly articles in various relevant disciplines. The “older workers” keyword search, for example brings up things like “Job Loss and Employment Patterns of Older Workers,” by Sewin Chan and Ann Huff Stevens, in the Journal of Labor Economics.

Three problems with Google Scholar:

First, indexed articles tend to be out of date. The Chan and Stevens study, for example, is dated 2001.

Second, the most interesting studies tend to be stashed behind paywalls. This effectively makes them inaccessible for anyone who has to do a lot of research.

And third, you would be surprised how many phony academic journals are out there: fake studies are published all the time by ersatz or dishonest “scholars” in fake journals. These are known as “predatory journals.” Many of them are open-access, and the numbers of these frauds grow exponentially every year, increasing the chance that you’ll find yourself reading a phony study. You can find lists of these predatory publications in Scholarly Open Access’s List of Stand-Alone Journals[3] and in Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers.[4] It’s important to check on any title that is not obviously associated with a well-known publisher or university.

Important to know: The original Beall’s List was taken down when one of the crooks threatened its founder and operator with a lawsuit. A follower, however, downloaded contents that were current at the time and republished it in a wiki, adding more titles to the original and inviting readers to participate in the Wiki. Thus you need to go to the site published on Weebly to access this invaluable resource:

For serious, in-depth research once you’re beyond the first-pass stage, you’re best served by visiting a university or at least a good community college library, where you can obtain articles free of charge.

How to Find Experts

A convenient place to start looking for experts on topics large and small is, of course, the Internet. If your subject involves a service or a product, some company no doubt provides it in your area. Do a search for the product or service and simply call the president of a local firm and ask for an interview.

If your subject is a social issue, some nonprofit undoubtedly addresses it. Nonprofit directors are often more open to talking with the press—they like getting free publicity—so, they can be very helpful.

You may have to get past a gatekeeper. Explain who you are, what you’re doing, and what publication you’re writing for. Usually you’ll be directed to someone who knows the subject. If not, move on to the next company.

Trade groups bring together business people with similar concerns. Google “trade associations” or “professional organizations” plus your topic’s key terms, and you’ll often find a lead to an interviewee.

City, county, and state commissions are good local sources of experts on public policy issues. Call the mayor’s, county supervisor’s, or governor’s office for leads.

Elected representatives keep abreast of public issues that affect their constituents. Google a state, city, or county plus terms such as “governor,” “representative,” “senator,” “commissioner,” “mayor,” “city council,” and the like.

State or local governments staff certain departments with experts. Fish and game departments, for example, often hire ecologists knowledgeable in regional conservation issues. The highway department may have an engineer who can talk about safe bridge construction. Experts on corrections, child abuse, the handicapped, real estate, the environment, communication, transportation, education, tourism . . . name a subject, and you’ll find someone who knows about it somewhere on the public payroll.

Chambers of Commerce collect information on tourism, economic development, and various civic projects. They often have in-house specialists or can refer you to private-sector experts. Here again, though: watch their comments for bias.

Universities and colleges are full of people who know what they’re talking about. On controversial topics, you may get a straighter story here—scientists and other academics are less likely to speak from pure self-interest than are politicians, public-relations reps, and bureaucrats. But bear in mind that academics have their own hobbyhorses, chief among them concerns about promotion and prestige.

Find academic experts by calling the college’s press bureau or public information office. Explain what your story is about, who you’re writing for, and what specific information you need.

One expert is an excellent source of another: each time you interview someone, ask for a reference to someone else who might help you.

Watch local newspapers and city magazines for clip-and-save listings of consumer advocates, elected representatives, points of interest, and the like. Local business journals often run annual lists of the areas biggest companies, complete with officers’ names and phone numbers. Keep a file of such material in print form if it’s unavailable on the Web. If it does appear on the Net, bookmark it.

How to Find Manuscript Sources

Much unpublished material rests in state and national archives, university libraries, and various private collections. Historical societies invariably keep documents, letters, and memoirs that cast light on modern topics.

The Library of Congress publishes the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, which is online and largely searchable.[5] Tens of thousands of manuscript collections in hundreds of U.S. repositories are catalogued.

If you write regularly about your state or city, make it a point to familiarize yourself with the state’s official archives, local museums and historical societies, and university manuscript collections. Introduce yourself to the librarian, and if you don’t have a specific assignment, spend some time browsing.

Public records are by definition “public,” meaning you or anyone else can see them. Much of this material is online, though in some cases you may still have to go to a government office to view them. For a fee, you can do a pretty comprehensive online background check on just about anyone. Be careful, though: online results are not always accurate.

How Do You Know When You’ve Finished?

It is possible to get so involved with the research that you never get around to writing the piece. In reporterese jargon, this is called “over-researching the story.”

At some point, you’ll have to stop, if for no other reason than the editor’s snappish reminder that you have twenty minutes to deadline.

When people start repeating things you’ve heard elsewhere, you usually have done enough. When you’ve covered all the bases with an interviewee and he answers the final “is there more I should know?” question with “no,” you’re probably safe in quitting.

Think over your angle or focus and ask yourself, “Do I have enough material to cover this fairly? If the issue is controversial, have I investigated all sides? Do I know the most current developments?” If the answer is yes, you might as well stop.

You should finish with several times more material than you can use. Before you begin writing, you will sift and organize your notes, picking out the most germane points, while the rest serves as background that makes you an informed speaker.



[3] /



Research Blues…

Here we are, on the way to writing the Boob Book, swimming through dense swamps of academic research by way of compiling something to say and maybe even getting it right. Each new research report and serious news report points me in the direction of some other paper I really ought to read. The pile of print-outs now numbers about 800 pages…and counting.

Plowing through all this material, reading it carefully, and annotating it, I’ve reached page 701 and probably will get through another 50 pages today. But of course…this morning I stumbled across this little gem:

Rastelli, Antonella L., Marie E. Taylor, Feng Gao, Reina Armamento-Villareal, Shohreh Jamalabadi-Majidi, Nicola Napoli, and Matthew J. Ellis. “Vitamin D and Aromatase Inhibitor-Induced Musculoskeletal Symptoms (AIMSS): A Phase II, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Randomized Trial.” Breast Cancer Research and Treatment 129, no. 1 (August 2011): 107-116. doi 10.1007/s10549-011-1644-6.

Damn! A randomized study on a BIG topic and the thing is dated 2011! How the hell could I have missed this?

WhatEVER. I’ve got my sticky little hands on it now and will be reading it within the next day or two.

As dry as it sounds, I’m finding this stuff extremely interesting. It’s so fascinating, as a matter of fact, that once I’m launched on a study session, it can be difficult to tear myself away from it.

And it makes me regret that I was born 40 years too soon. I always loved the sciences and, as a little girl, craved to grow up to become an astrophysicist. Over time I came to find the life sciences more interesting. But come the 1960s, when I entered college, neither field was, shall we say, welcoming to female students. Oh well.

In any event, the project feels a lot like writing the dissertation, only considerably more engaging.

Reading the research on breast cancer, DCIS, breast cancer treatments, and the breast cancer industry can be surprisingly disturbing, too. I’ve found it’s wise to limit the number of hours spent working on this stuff to about four a day — otherwise, it can really ramp up the stress level.

As an example… One of the most startling revelations this little project has uncovered has been the very negative effects radiation therapy has when applied after the “immediate reconstruction” procedure that is widely hawked to women who have mastectomies. “Immediate reconstruction” entails inserting a saline or silicone implant under the chest muscles during the same surgery that removes the diseased breast.

If the woman has an invasive cancer, then even after a mastectomy she will be subjected to radiation treatment. (Many women who do not have invasive cancer end up with mastectomies: a large enough DCIS will do the trick, as well the presence of a mutated gene that hikes up your chance of developing breast cancer as high as 70%). But radiotherapy hugely increases complication rates when it’s done after cosmetic surgery (which is what “reconstruction” is, boys and girls). The unsightly and often painful results can lead to repeated new surgeries and extended misery.

Overall, if you think you’ll need radiation therapy — or if there’s even a chance that you will — you’re better off to wait on the reconstruction until after the radiotherapy is done.

I came across images illustrating said stark fact in a review of recent research, what we humanities PhD’s would call a “survey of the literature”:

Rozen, Warren M. and Mark W. Ashton. “Radiotherapy and Breast Reconstruction: Oncology, Cosmesis and Complications.” Gland Surgery 1, no. 2 (August 2013): n.p.

Doctors don’t tell you this when they propose that you should undergo a mastectomy. When mine first suggested that she felt getting rid of the boob was the best course of action, in the same breath she said “but we can do an immediate reconstruction while you’re on the table.” As though everything would then be said and done.

Well. Not quite.

Nor was I told, during the eight months or so that we attempted to excise the criminal DCIS from my dainty little boob, that the radiotherapy they intended to subject me to after the lumpectomy could cause the scar to contract and hideously deform the breast they were trying so valiantly to save.

Actually, I was given a choice between going with lumpectomy, radiation, and aromatase inhibitors or having a mastectomy and being done with the whole effing ordeal. WonderSurgeon indeed had managed to excise the entity to fit the 2014 ASTRO/SSO guidelines. These say that “no ink on tumor” suffices and that wider margins of tumor-free tissue make no difference in survival rates. But she wasn’t buying the new guidelines and felt strongly that the better part of valor resides in wider margins.

Being the incurable skeptic that I am, every time the woman opened her mouth I resorted to my research tools. And yea verily: I easily found research studies that were just freaking NOT THAT OLD suggesting — convincingly! — that wider margins = better results.

After learning what radiotherapy can do to a gifted surgeon’s work of art, I am so glad we elected to go ahead with mastectomy. And…after learning how much can go awry with “reconstruction” — and how often — I’m also mighty glad I elected to go flat.

Even though I was assured that a mastectomy would mean no radiotherapy and no hormone therapy, something else was left unsaid: Naturally, the excised boob would be carefully studied by a pathologist, and if any invasive cancer showed up after all, none of the above would apply.

Obviously, it would be good if the Writer never had a dog in this particular fight. When you’re this close to it, reading the research surely can raise your blood pressure.

But…having lived the application of all that research, I’ll have plenty to say about it and what I have to say should be pretty lively. This is going to be a great book. Good reporters by their nature have high blood pressure. 😉

Models: Where Do Your Characters Come From?

Writing fiction - Where do your characters come from?Where do the people in your fiction come from? Do you even know where they came from?

I have to admit that sometimes I have no idea. Fire-Rider, the first of several soon-to-be-published stories of an invented world in the far, far future, teems with characters who bear no resemblance to anyone I’ve ever met or even read about. Homicidal warlords and foot soldiers, powerful ruling women and their sister wives, a boy prostitute and a prosperous madam, a tribe of young refugees unhomed by ceaseless wars, a woman hunter and trapper, the foreman of a vast ranch-like estate, a healer who’s also a warlord, a wandering teacher and bard…whence did these people arise?

Athena springs from head of zeus

Athena springs from the head of Zeus

Well, out of the writer’s mind, obviously. Often I think that each character is a fragment of the writer’s consciousness, some part of her or his own personality in some way hidden until it pops out, full blown from the head of Zeus, and materializes in the form of a new (albeit imagined) human being.

Other times I think, “That is just not possible!” These people do things I have no experience with; they know things and say things that I could never know or say. I have to do hours of research to envision some kind of understanding of their world, their lives, and their loves.

Is there ever a real-life model for such characters?

Hapa Cottrite

Hapa Cottrite

Occasionally. Just now I’m writing a chapter in the first-person voice of a character who’s a kind of public intellectual, to the extent possible in a time when almost no one can read or write — that would be the wandering teacher and bard. After Hapa Cottrite coalesced in my imagination, I realized that he resembles one of my editorial clients, an international banking CEO and long-time ex-pat with a sharp mind, broad curiosity, and zest for living among foreign peoples. Once that dawned on me, I began to model Cottrite explicitly after this man, to the extent that their moods, outlook, and even physical appearance are similar.

But most times, there’s no visible connection between a character in one of my tales and a real-world human being. They don’t resemble anyone I know, because no one I know lives in a reimagined analog of the European Middle Ages amalgamated with life in medieval Mongolia.

Probably they’re modeled on what I know about life in the medieval period and about the world-view of people who inhabited that world. That’s considerable: before I finished the doctorate in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean English literature and history, I wanted to specialize in the medieval period. So, I took quite a few upper-division and graduate courses in medieval literature (this stuff comprised both British and continental works, because my undergraduate major was in French). And I still edit scholarly works of medieval history.

Some pretty heady stuff went on during those times. And it was weird. If you or I could magically step through a time warp and come out in 1250, we would feel like we’d landed on another planet. That’s how different those people were from us.

William the Conqueror and his two half-brothers

William the Conqueror and his two half-brothers

So I suppose you could say the Fire-Rider characters are sort of “modeled” on what I happen to know of a typical medieval warlord, informed to some extent by what I’ve learned about Mongol warriors of Genghis Khan’s time. That’s pretty broad. And since no two of these characters are the same, it’s hard to say where their individual personalities came from.

The women’s roles, however, are completely re-imagined and warped. Never in human history have women, aristocratic or otherwise, done what Fire-Rider‘s women do. In their cases, I’ve had to invent, invent, and re-invent. Even to imagine what they look like, to say nothing of what they get up to, requires a great deal of focused, concentrated work.

Maybe we could say, then, that our characters come out of our experience, learned and observed, and out of our invention, purely imagined.

Or maybe they spring from the head of Zeus?

When you’re ready for an editor or publisher, contact us.

Just the Facts, Ma’am. Lots of them…

Writing tips - facts and details spice things up and make the world real to your readers.I’ve been revisiting one of my very favorite writers, John McPhee. How can I count the ways I love McPhee? His astonishing style, his engaging voice, his eclectic subject matter, his amazing story structure, his mind-boggling erudition, his sense of humor…it goes on and on.

One of the things I especially love about John McPhee is the hefty, dense factual content of his prose. To say you can’t read a McPhee piece without learning something is to understate grossly. Truth to tell, you can’t read a McPhee piece without learning something in almost every sentence.

Some of it is observed fact:

Carol [dissecting a snapping turtle killed by a car]…talked to the dead turtle, soothingly, reassuringly, nurse to patient, doctor to child, and when she reached in under the plastron and found an ovary, she shifted genders with a grunt of surprise. She pulled out some globate yellow fat and tossed it into the pond. Hundreds of mosquito fish came darting through the water, sank their teeth, shook their heads, worried the fat. Carol began to move fat from the turtle’s body. The eggs were like ping-balls in size, shape, and color, and how they all fitted into the turtle was more than I could comprehend, for there were fifty-six of them in there, fully finished, and a number that had not quite taken their ultimate form. (John McPhee, Travels in Georgia, in The John McPhee Reader)

In four sentences we learn snapping turtles contain ball-shaped chunks of yellow fat, that mosquitofish will eat flesh (or at least free handouts of turtle fat), that snapping turtle eggs are as big as ping-pong balls, that a mature female can lay upwards of 56 of them, and that this Carol knows how to dissect a large, hard-shelled reptile.

His prose is informed as much by research as by observation, though:

The purpose of such projects [we’re viewing a type of reclamation project called stream channelization] was to anticipate and eliminate floods, to drain swamps, to increase cropland, to channel water toward freshly created reservoirs serving and attracting new industries and new housing developments. Water sports would flourish on the new reservoirs, hatchery fish would proliferate below the surface: new pulastions in the life of the rural South. The Soil Conservation Service was annually spending about fifteen million dollars on stream-channelization projects, providing among other things, newly arable land to farmers who already had land in the Soil Bank. The Department of Agriculture could not do enough for the Southern farmer, whose only problem was bookkeeping. He got money for keeping his front forty idle. His bottomland went up in value when the swamps were drained, and then more money came for not farming the drained land. Years earlier, when a conservationist had been someone who plowed land along natural contours, the Soil Conservation Service had been the epicenter of the conservation movement, decorated for its victories over erosion of the land. Now, to a new generation that had discovered ecology, the SCS was the enemy. Its drainage programs tampered with river mechanics, upsetting the relationships between bass and otter, frog and owl. The Soil Conservation Service had grown over the years into a bureau of fifteen thousand people, and all the way down at the working point, the cutting edge of things, was Chap Causey, in the cab of his American dragline, hearing nohting but the pounding of his big Jimmy diesel while he eliminated a river, eradicated a swamp. (John McPhee, “Travels in Georgia”)

In ten sentences, we learn the following:

  1. Stream channelization is a flood control technique.
  2. It’s used to drain swamps.
  3. It’s used to increase cropland
  4. It’s used to channel water into reservoirs.
  5. It benefits sporting, and real estate development industries.
  6. By 1975 (when “Travels in Georgia” was published), the Soil Conservation Service was spending $15 million a year on stream channelization.
  7. The supposed benefits of the projects were often redundant and served to profit those who were already plenty affluent and who had already acquired sufficient wealth through government programs.
  8. Southern farmers benefited from government support projects by collecting money to leave land idle.
  9. Southern farmers benefited from soil channelization when swamp draining enhanced the value of their bottomland.
  10. Southern farmers further benefited by collecting federal dollars to leave this newly valuable bottomland fallow.
  11. The SCS used to be one of the nation’s premier conservation agencies, thanks to programs to prevent soil erosion.
  12. By 1975, the SCS had built a reputation for harming the environment, largely because of its drainage programs.
  13. Drainage projects harm ecological balances such as those involving bass and otters and frogs and owls.
  14. By 1975, the SCS employed 15,000 people.
  15. The operator of the American (brand name) dragline crane engaged in the project at hand was named Chap Causey.
  16. The engine of an American dragline crane runs on diesel.
  17. The crane’s engine was made by GMC.

Think of that: 17 hard facts in 10 sentences. That’s almost 2 facts per sentence, and it’s not even one of McPhee’s true tours de force.

Being a writer of what today we call creative nonfiction, McPhee uses observed fact (and sometimes researched fact) for literary as well as journalistic purposes. To paint a setting, for example:

A stop for a D.O.R. [“dead on road”] always brought the landscape into detailed focus. Pitch coming out of a pine. Clustered sows behind a fence. An automobile wrapped in vines. A mailbox. “Donald Foskey.” His home. Beyond the mailbox, a set of cinder blocks and on the cinder blocks a mobile home. (“Travels in Georgia”)

Or to perform a deft, swift characterization:

…Carol turned on the radio and moved the dial. If she could find some Johnny Cash, it would elevate her day. Some Johnny Cash was not hard to find in the airwaves of Georgia. There he was now, resonantly singing about his Mississippi Delta land, where, on a sharecropping farm, he grew up. Carol smiled and closed her eyes. In her ears — pierced ears — were gold maple leaves that seemed to move under the influence of the music.

Facts — accurate facts, astutely observed details — are the heart of journalism, but they’re also the heart of any writing, fiction, essay, and even poetry included. You doubt it? Check out, for example, a random passage from Alice Munro:

That was the time of their being women together. Home permanents were tried on Juliet’s stubborn fine hair, dressmaking sessions produced the outfits like nobody else’s, suppers were peanut-butter-tomato-and-mayonnaise sandwiches on the evenings Sam stayed late for a school meeting. Stories were told and retold about Sara’s boyfriends and girlfriends, the jokes they played and the fun they had, in the days when Sara was a schoolteacher too, before her  heart got too bad. Stories from the time before that, when she lay in bed with rheumatic fever and had the imaginary friends Rollo and Maxine who solved mysteries, even murders, like the characters in certain children’s books. Glimpses of Sam’s besotted courtship, disasters with the borrowed car, the time he showed up at Sara’s door disguised as a tramp. (Alice Munro, “Soon,” in Runaway)

  1. Juliet and Sara were close friends.
  2. Juliet has fine hair.
  3. They tried to permanent it.
  4. They ate awful food when one of them didn’t have to cook for a man.
  5. They related stories from their lives.
  6. Sara was once a schoolteacher.
  7. Sara had a bad heart.
  8. Sara’s heart trouble stemmed from rheumatic fever.
  9. Sara’s rheumatic fever probably occurred when she was a child.
  10. Sam drinks, or possibly he’s just clumsy
  11. Sam got into some sort of trouble with a borrowed car.
  12. Sam has done some odd things.

Twelve facts in five sentences. Not bad!

It’s the details that allow the reader to visualize, understand, and absorb your message. So facts, whether they come from research or observation (and the imagined facts of the fiction writer or poet are based on observation and experience) are indispensable. Writing is a process of reporting research.

Every writer needs facts. Lots of facts.

Get them. Don’t neglect them!