Therese here. Today’s guest is someone who’s been a WU lurker for over a year and half: L.B. Gale. L.B. works as an educator–a literacy specialist–in New York City, and is an aspiring fantasy author who received her Master’s degree at the University of Chicago, focused on comparative mythology and fantasy literature. Her favorite novels are A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.
L.B. brings something unique to WU today in the form of in-depth tips for online research. We know you’re going to love them. Enjoy!
Tips for Turning Online Procrastination Time into Writing Research Time
As someone who has worked with educators for some time, I’ve learned how decent enough students react when assigned various types of writing. The teacher says write a narrative and they hear “freedom.” The teacher says write an essay and they hear “annoying but doable.” The teacher says write a research paper and they hear “pain.”
And so it is for professional writers and aspiring writers alike. Research means pain, but we must all be researchers if we are to write well. In particular, a writer needs to be two varieties of researcher:
- The librarian. This researcher gathers information on varied topics to add detail and texture to their narratives.
- The Self-Analyzer. This researcher gathers information on their own writing to determine what next steps to take for improvement.
In education, the current trend is to find ways to teach students how to do boring things like research using exciting things like technology and the Internet. I thought that it might be helpful to look at how some of the strategies I’ve seen used with students could be useful for creative writers.
Like students, we are all easily distracted when working. Like students, we will procrastinate as much as possible. Like students, we need bright shiny strategies to help us turn procrastination time into something useful. Here are a few bright shiny strategies:
- Using Google’s “My Library” Feature to Research(for the Librarian)The Internet murdered the Book Index when it introduced the ability to search inside a text. “My Library” takes this a step further and allows you to search inside multiple texts all at once. If you want to find tons of information on a topic (historical, theoretical, scientific, or otherwise), you can group multiple texts together using “My Library” and search them to find pages of free and useful information all in one place.
The Process: As long as you have a Google account, it’s extremely simple. In Google Books, search for books related to the topic you want to research. Modify your search to show only books that have a preview available (this function is on the left toolbar). Then scan the results and for each relevant book click “Add to my library.” Now when you navigate to “My Library” through the Google Books main page, you can use the “Search My Library” bar to find and read any page in all of the books from your library that relates to the topic at hand.
- Using Wordle (for the Self-Analyzer)Wordle is a great tool for visualizing the key words in a piece of writing. By blocking out the most common English words (like “a,” “and,” “the,” etc.), Wordle allows you to create a visual map of the most used words in a text. Though I see many bloggers use this tool to analyze other people’s writing, it can be a great tool for self-analysis.
Take a look at this image I made of my recent blog posts. I can see two things: I’m blogging too much about character development, and I should probably check if I’m overusing terms like “really,” “good,” and “just.” You can use this for your creative writing to see what adjectives, dialogue tags, names, and so on you are overusing or aren’t using enough. It also helps you to see if the theme you’re trying to emphasize is well represented by the key words in your story, or if you have gotten lost in subplots and tangents.
The Process: Go to wordle.net, click on “Create your own” and paste the text of your latest work into the main area. Wordle will then generate a word cloud of your most frequently used terms. You can also view a simpler chart of the words you sorted by frequency if you click on the “Language” button and then “show word counts.”
- Using Google Documents for Survey Information(for both the Librarian and the Self-Analyst)One of the forms of research students are commonly asked to perform is the standard survey (the What’s your favorite ice cream flavor? project). Rather than have students gather data on messy, easily lost paper, I’ve seen teachers teach students to use Google documents, which has a free survey tool that automatically gathers survey data into a spreadsheet.
As the librarian researcher, I’ve used this to gather anecdotal information from friends or social network followers. Let’s say I’m writing a scene where a character has an embarrassing thing happen to him, I might look for inspiration from stories that friends and acquaintances are willing to share. I quickly make a Google Form Survey (“What was the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you?”), send it out, and see what responses I get. You’d be surprised at how many people will fill out your form if it means not having to do real work. Google translates the data into a spreadsheet, and voila! I have a huge chunk of life experience (in addition to my own) to add some texture to my scene.
You can also use this as the self-analyst to create a kind of focus group. Worried about a chapter or a scene? Throw the text into a Google Form with some key questions and send it out to friends and acquaintances. It’s anonymous, and they’ll give you frank, effective feedback (as long as your questions allow for it).
The Process: With your Google account, navigate to Google Docs, create a “Form,” and format it however you like (there are numerous question style options). Then send the link to whomever you like (or embed it in your blog) and watch the results gather in the spreadsheet that automatically shows up in your Google Docs folder.
Though some say the only certainties in life are death and taxes, I know that for me, the third certainty is that Internet time=procrastination time. However, I find that by working the above three Internet-based research strategies into my online procrastination time, I can not only get useful research information for my work in progress, but I can also get research done with very little pain.