Early last fall I received a pitch about how to apply scientific reasoning to writing. The pitch addressed a way of bringing this thought process to both non-fiction and fiction writing. This was a very unique pitch and we haven’t posted anything on Write Naked about this before. Thanks to United Kingdom-based writer Naomi Elster for her guest post today!
The Scientific Method for Writing Research
By Naomi Elster
Solid writing is built on solid research. In nonfiction, mistakes will make readers doubt your competence. Mistakes in fiction can irritate readers and pull them out of the world of your story. With social media, push-back against errors can be rapid and aggressive.
For centuries, scientific research has been guided by a series of defined, organised steps known as The Scientific Method.
Here’s a very quick overview of the steps, and how they could be used in a hypothetical piece.
- Ask a question and/or make an observation in broad terms. This could be deciding that you want to write something about the mysteriously empty row of townhouses in your neighbourhood.
- Do some background research to see what information is already known and readily available about your subject. This will ensure your piece is offering something new, and, depending on the information available, it will guide you as you decide what you want to write. If there’s a lot of backstory but even more unanswered questions, there may be a book in it. Perhaps the row of flats has a colourful past, which could inspire a short story. Or perhaps some unresolved regulatory issue has prevented the houses being occupied, although the community is desperately in need of affordable housing – a nonfiction piece.
- A hypothesis is an educated guess, based on the background research, and is that start of your more specific questioning. For example, “I hypothesise that people are afraid to live in this row of houses” or “I assume that the local council is sitting on some decision which is preventing these houses being occupied.”
- An experiment is a way to test a hypothesis, to see if your theory holds water. Always try to get your information from multiple independent sources. Do old newspapers report anything about those houses, or the street? What files does the council have on them? While we do experiments, we have to stop from time to time to check the techniques we’re using are helping us to ask and answer the right questions. If they are not, we need to change our methods. A long day looking at records got you nowhere? Who can you take for a coffee, who might know something?
- Analyse your results with an open mind. Be comfortable with the fact that you may have to change your original assumption based on the information you have gathered.
- Come to a conclusion.
Some final tips:
- Be aware of bias: if you have a preferred theory, don’t ignore evidence that contradicts it.
- Keep your assumptions based on facts. Do enough research to avoid resorting to stereotype (e.g. an unspecified mental illness as a get out of jail free card for a villain’s motive).
- When you gather information, always keep notes on where you got it from. Don’t assume you’ll remember who told you or what book you read. A good source is one where the person and their credentials are known. This is why no scientist worth their salt would ever cite an anonymous, crowd-sourced site like Wikipedia. If you’re interviewing primary sources, keep notes on their background and authority to speak on the topic, especially as different sources may well contradict each other.
If you have an interview lined up, use your background research, to make sure you are knowledgeable before the interview. This will help you have a more insightful conversation, and is also respectful of your source’s, and your, time.
There’s no getting around the fact that research is time-consuming. You probably will be highly interested in the subject anyway, but it’s important to have a plan. If you are working on a longer project, it may be worth pitching related feature articles, which will allow you to get paid for some of your research time.
Naomi Elster is a writer and a scientist with journalism bylines in The Guardian, Hotpress, Rewire, and many others. Her short stories and poems have been widely published in print and online literary journals, and she has had two plays produced, both of which were critically and commercially successful (Scabs, Theatre Upstairs, August 2013; Night Shift, Smock Alley Theatre, February 2017) She lives in London, England, where she works as a breast cancer researcher. Find her on Twitter @Naomi_Elster.