Once upon a time, the world was flat.
Now it’s round.
Who knows? Maybe some day we’ll find out it’s square.
It’s hard to come across a cold hard fact anymore.
Drink 8 glasses of water a day. Drink 16 glasses of water a day. Don’t drink any water; get all your water from fruits and vegetables.
The contradictory advice goes on forever. There’s almost nothing you can nail down with absolute certainty.
Even your own content.
When you’re writing a game-changing piece of content, it’s natural to want to nail that article down with irrefutable data. So you spend seventeen hours to come up with data from books, white papers, and online sources.
But your research is tainted
No matter how hard you work to nail down the facts, you’re going to run into accuracy problems.
That’s because your information sources aren’t entirely reliable. Even if the source is reliable, the information may not be.
For example, a magazine may accurately report the findings of a study, but who says the study results are actually correct?
Here are just a few ways your research can become tainted:
- Research is often funded by lobby groups pushing their own agendas.
- Passed-down information can lose relevant bits.
- What was once fact has since been overturned by new evidence.
Let’s look at them one by one.
Problem 1: Research may not be objective
Let’s say a lobby group wants to increase sales of lemonade. They fund research to find more reasons for you to drink lemonade. They pour squillions of dollars into their research, and amazingly enough, all that research comes to the same conclusion: lemonade has amazing health benefits.
Of course, that’s not how the research is presented to you.
The research is presented in an interesting, fact-driven way that makes you believe it. Given a slew of reasonable-sounding facts and a truckload of statistics, and most of us will change our perception.
That’s not to say lobby groups are bad people. They’re just like you and me.
We tell our kids to eat spinach because it will make them big and strong. Doesn’t matter if the spinach doesn’t actually have the nutrients to get kids big and strong. Doesn’t matter if we’ve cooked the goodness out of the spinach. The kids swallow the idea — and hopefully the spinach. We all present information in the best light.
And when we add figures and facts, it becomes something written in stone.
Except it’s not written in stone. It’s not cold, hard fact. It’s just one view, one presentation of the data.
Problem 2: Hand-me down facts
Use tea bags to polish hardwood floors. Mix turmeric and honey in hot water and drink it for a cough. Use the underside of a ceramic mug to put an edge on that dull kitchen knife.
These are hand-me down facts. They work — but do they work just the way they’re written? Did the author leave out a piece of critical information in the re-telling? Perhaps you have to steep the tea bags for a certain amount of time. Maybe you have to be careful to get the exact correct angle between your knife and that ceramic mug.
Facts often develop holes over time.
As stories get handed down, they lose information. The main part of the story may be true, but misleading without key pieces of information that go with it. The only way to be sure it to check for yourself. You take those tea bags and polish a part of your hardwood floor. If the floors shine, you’ve got a personal story of your own to tell.
Hand-me-down data looks valid, but unless you’ve proved it yourself, you’re quoting unproven research.
And that takes us to the final problem: The data keeps changing.
Problem 3: Facts evolve
As recently as 1980, most neuroscientists would tell you with confidence that the brain had no meaningful plasticity.
Plasticity means that the brain is adaptable. That it can heal damage from strokes, accidents, and other horrible things, and that it can change and adapt after the critical period of childhood.
There’s now research (yeah, I’m aware of the irony in referencing research in this article) that all areas of the brain can change and evolve even in adulthood. Destroyed function can be “re-routed” to other areas of the brain. And intense mental activity (like studying for med school exams) can change the brain in measurable ways in a matter of weeks.
I want you to understand one thing: these original nay-sayers were neuroscientists. They live, breathe, and map their entire careers around research about how the brain works. Some of the smartest people on the planet. And they were wrong.
Today, neuroplasticity is an irrefutable fact.
But who’s to know what will come around the corner?
Does this mean you shouldn’t research your articles?
Not at all. Research matters. Facts matter.
All I’m saying is that it isn’t necessary to spend all those hours tracking down facts. Often, the facts you find are only half-right, or they’re just a part of greater truths to be revealed.
Go ahead and do your research, but put on an egg timer. If you don’t get what you’re looking for in about 20 minutes, it’s time to get your own facts together.
Don’t make up facts that aren’t true, but tell us your own experience.
It’s better to simply write what you know. Not only does it make for a good story, you can be secure that what you’re saying is really true.
Research makes things interesting, but your own case studies are just as interesting. So don’t be bashful. Use your personal stories and experiences more often — you don’t need fifteen sources and two experts to back you up.
You might be wrong
Sure, you may be wrong about the way you interpret what you experience.
The neuroscientists were wrong too. So were all the smart, educated people who insisted the world was flat. There have been countless geniuses who insisted on theories that would ultimately prove to be wrong.
Research won’t save you from being wrong. It’ll just get in the way of telling your story — and that’s more important than having irrefutable facts.
Especially because the facts are never irrefutable. No matter how much research you do.
About the Author: Sean D’Souza offers a great free report on ‘Why Headlines Fail’ when you subscribe to his Psychotactics Newsletter. Be sure to check out his blog, too.
Reader Comments (79)
Susanne Myers says
Great point. It’s so easy to get stuck in the research phase whether it’s for an article or an entire new website. This is particularly true if (like me), you enjoy the research part. I like the idea of the egg timer. I use it for all sorts of business activities from answering email to writing articles and blog commenting.
The reason it works so well is explained by Parkinson’s law which states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Limit your time for research and then get that content written up and out there (be it in a blog post or as an article, ebook etc.) so it can be helpful to others. One of the beauties of the internet is that you can always go back and revise your work as new facts appear.
Great point about revisions. And don’t be afraid to do them either! I’d rather have someone need to revise their info versus just leaving it be because they’re too proud to admit they might have gotten it wrong. Great post!
Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire says
That’s a timely post, because there is a lot of buzz out there that bloggers are a little too loosy-goosey with the statements that they’re making.
I like your mix of fact-finding and adding your own experiences. You can only make so many unproven statements, but at the same time, people don’t want to hear a list of statistics.
We listen to the news we like and we read the content that fits in with the beliefs and values that we have.
Almost everything that we do is swayed by rose colored glasses.
I don’t believe it’s possible for a person to be 100% objective about something, so why beat it to death with research when they are just going to form the opinon they most-likely want to believe.
I really like the angle you took on this one.
The Underdog Millionaire
Richard Elen says
Good advice for the general writer and particularly good for the marketing writer.
However I would suggest that if you’re a specialist (eg science) writer, you /do/ need to be spot-on and up to date with your research and you /do/ need to know the topic well enough to be able to understand and summarise the research papers and other data. Yes of course the picture changes all the time and the best you can do is to accurately represent a snapshot of what’s known at the time you’re writing. But anything less than that is simply not good enough: it confuses or even misleads the reader. Yes, you might be wrong. But that doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t do your best not to be.
The world’s newspapers are full of rubbish on science subjects from journalists whose egg timers ran out.
Brian Prows says
I agree with you, Richard. It’s the expectation of the audience and the subject matter that determines the amount of research.
For example, I just wrote a post about affiliate marketers destroying mobile marketing by not following DMA, MMA and Federal laws about text spam. After reviewing several articles, I decided to quote from an attorney firm that’s knowledgeable about the CAN-SPAM law especially with regard to mobile text messaging.
I could have linked to a site containing the full version of the CAN-SPAM Act but no one would have read it.
On the other hand, I agree with the author that analysis paralysis sets in frequently with bloggers. And, quite frankly, most readers don’t click on the supporting links anyway. So tell your story and don’t worry too much about getting your facts 110% correct.
Finally, I’m not sure the author fleshed out how content is hurt without facts and research. Surely if your blog post reads like a Wikipedia article, readers might yawn and click. But how does including relevant, useful references hurt content? Even the Scribe SEO tool calls for a link every 120 words.
If he’s talking about post length, then I agree, especially in mobile and wireless–my space. I”ve found a lot of “30 second jumpers” in some of my posts. These “give me the facts” in 100 words or less folks aren’t my target audience anyway.
Kate Murphy says
I agree. It depends on what you are writing and who your audience is, but keeping close to the current “state of the facts” is important. That involves research into the facts.
With the information available on the internnet, no one needs to be quoting the twenty-year old encyclopedia in their basement.
Turning dry facts into lively articles is hard. Luckily, you don’t need to go into difficult detail. That’s what links are for: to provide more details and to substantiate the information you are giving people.
You can always write about your own experience, but it isn’t the same as facts. If you want to expand on that experience, it takes research.
Of course, knowing when to stop researching and finish writing is important.
Wes Hopper says
As an info junkie I appreciate the egg timer idea. I don’t get paid for reading, but for writing!
That said, one of my pet peeves is writers who assert facts that are either new or counterintuitive without citing any source. You gotta have some backup for those kinds of statements, and I agree that too much research doesn’t help, but you should cite something. Otherwise it creates a lack of trust in your reader’s mind. Clearly separating facts from your opinions helps create believability.
siraaj muhammad says
Sean, excellent article. I often find there are mainstream opinions and then “alternatives gaining traction” which hold equal or better value, but often both sides are so emotionally invested in their side, they can’t see the value or perspective of the opposing opinion / approach / etc.
karen post says
I work with a global chemical company ans so relate to this post. Excellent point of view, appreciate the insight.!
Karen Scharf says
In addition to the fact that “Research may not be objective” we also have to factor in that our own search for the facts is most likely not entirely objective. Our own bias and preconceived opinions will affect the phrases we enter into the search engines and the topics we look for when researching. Unless you live in a vacuum, it’s impossible to be 100% impartial.
Derek Alvarez says
I see your point… I think it comes down to if you’re actually living it or not.
For me, I only write about things I know and things I’m doing… I don’t rely on Facebook stats and “facts” if I’m writing about using Facebook to market your business, for example.
I write about what I’ve actually done to market businesses on Facebook!
Lynn- Living Vintage says
That’s why top magazines used to have fact checkers. It also saved them getting their butts sued. And, why newspapers used to be aware of libel laws, etc. Important to note, since many bloggers seem to be under the impression they are journalists.
Kirsten Cross says
It’s remarkable how we’ve all become ‘Wikiphobic’ when it comes to research material, isn’t it? Great article, Sean, and as others have said, quite timely. When I’m briefing my writers I do provide resource links that will act as a stepping stone into the topic, but they are under strict Editorial orders to cross-reference all of their research material. And that doesn’t just mean having a look at Wiki and then clicking on the links.
However, I’m not sure about the egg timer scenario. You stated that “If you don’t get what you’re looking for in about 20 minutes, it’s time to get your own facts together.” Now I know that you then quantified that by saying not to make things up but to give the reader the benefit of your own experience, but that only works if you actually have any relevant experiences to draw from. I have absolutely no personal experience of medical negligence, for example, yet I write regularly on the topic. The articles I produce are engaging, informative and popular with my clients because I research, research, research.
Research is a key component of any article writing, particularly if you are commissioned as we are every day to do exactly that for a wide range of clients. They expect us to do our research, so the 20 minute timer might work for personal blogging where a correction is easy to make later on, but for commissioned work it has to be right first time, every time. In that instance, I don’t mind if my writers research for a week before putting an article together, as long as it is as factually accurate as it can possibly be.
Carol Tice says
This article reminds me of the old Talking Heads song Crosseyed and Painless, that went in part, “Facts are lazy and facts are late, Facts don’t do what you want them to, facts all come with a point of view…facts are getting the best of them!”
I think whether you need to care deeply and spend many hours finding facts really depends on what you’re writing. If it’s your personal blog, I’m with you — your own experience is at least as relevant as some study data you might dig up. But if your article or blog is trying to prove a point, some data to back it up can go a long way to build your credibility that you know your topic.
Possibly the way being too addicted to research hurts your content is you simply end up creating less of it if you get too obsessed with research and spend too much time on it! It just takes too much of your time.
But some pieces really need a research anchor or two. You’re certainly right that over-researching is a real content killer…makes the story mind-numbing with too many little factoids for the reader to readily absorb, and can make the narrative fade into the background instead of staying the vital heart of the story.
I find most posts here valuable, but not this one. It seems the point of this post is, in essence, “Facts are often wrong or debatable, so if you can’t track down hard info in a few minutes, give your readers anecdotal stuff from your head.” There’s enough poorly-reasoned stuff being posted every day without giving sloppy authors even more license to spew misinformation.
Brian Clark says
Roger, I was just about to reply to you on behalf of Sean, but I clicked over to Neuromarketing and got distracted by your most recent post about giant 3D boobs. Now that’s research I can get into. 😉
Sometimes, 20 minutes of research just isn’t long enough! 😉
Marcy Gerena says
I agree …. sometimes..
But, maybe it can be done in 20 minutes if you know what resources to use and why.
If not, I agree it will likely take more than 20 minutes searching to determine what resource is use.
Sonia Simone says
God bless the Y chromasome.
Brendon B Clark says
Heh heh. ChromOsome.
I wonder if this depends on the nature of the material, but a couple of thoughts.
The sheer amount of information we have access to has made us info-snackers rather than digesters. We skim, sample, and spend less time on a thing. One result is that we are more uncritically accepting of what we read. Neuroscientist Susan Greenwood has some interesting work here.
Bloggers need, I think, to be responsible to readers and not play fast and loose with facts. That the earth was flat once was the best they had, and they couldn’t prove otherwise. That the brain wasn’t plastic is the same. Tectonic plates and so on. It was later proven wrong but, at the time, was what they could show.
I think the bigger risks are giving up without finding out, publishing carelessly, and not accepting new “facts” when they’re shown to be right.
Marcy Gerena says
“I think the bigger risks are giving up without finding out, publishing carelessly, and not accepting new “facts” when they’re shown to be right.”
I could not agree with you more!
Dave Doolin says
I feel blessed. In 3D.
Michelle @Stress Relief for Caregivers says
Ha! my head would be spinning if I were to put much stock in all of the information out there.
I say research what you will, put your own spin on it and then include your readers in the feedback. Mistakes don’t make you any less of an expert, just human.
Sean, I think you’re dead-on with the difficult nature of facts.
I think you’re completely wrong on how to deal with it.
Facts evolve? Of course! The world changes. This is why you research to begin with. No one is holding you forever to what you wrote in this post. But they are expecting you to present the facts as they are at time of writing.
You never know who paid for the research? This seems to fly in the face of academic research everywhere! You must be looking for a convenient excuse. Sure, you can always find contradictory research from experts. And yes, I agree that no one has time to sift through it. But I think the better position is to offer both viewpoints (even if you are leaning to one) as an acknowledgement to fair reporting. There are tons and tons of journals specific to every subject that present information thoroughly and evenly.
Hand-me down facts? Referencing a bunch of tricks around the house hardly seems relevant to the work of a marketing/social media guru. It is important to always challenge “conventional wisdom”, not shy away from it.
Yes, research is hard and time consuming. You aren’t being paid to read. But you aren’t being paid to churn out rubbish, correct? Either you build a compelling argument, including anecdotes and stats, or you waste your readers’ time. This doesn’t have to take all day. It just needs some brain power – take time to find where the best sources of information are. Take time to treat your readers like adults.
It’s one thing to refer to your own experiences as good enough on a personal blog. But if you work for a company or nonprofit, that just doesn’t cut it. And if you call 20 minutes of research a good practice of writing on your blog about professional writing, that strikes me as absurd. The internet is filled with enough noise already — if you can’t bother to get the facts straight (even if it takes more than 20 minutes), are you offering anything worth reading?
Vik Tantry says
Trying to find accurate facts to back up what you are saying is important, but not if it eats up so much time that you can’t get the content you are working on finished. There is a fine line between research and writing. Time can be one of the most important things that you spend on writing articles or other content for a website. None of your writing can do you any good if you can’t get it written and published.
This reminds me of a blog I posted about time=money. Putting too much time into research will end up costing you more money. Trying to find the facts you need to base an article on is a good thing, but too many facts can have an adverse affect. How many facts do you really need to base an article on?
Maryann @ Raise Healthy Eaters says
While I agree to a certain degree, part of what I do on my site is provide credible nutrition advice for families. I encourage people to get advice that is based on evidence. Yes it is always changing but to do any less can be harmful. Simply believing what someone says and their experience is not alway senough. I just read an article where the writer said how dangerous soy was and when I asked her what research she used she said it was based more on her own “real life” studies. Many of hte parents were scared wondering if they should give up soy or not.
Sarah Arrow says
Another great post! I have become a big fan in recent weeks.
Research and who funds that research, I think should be stated when using that info in a blog. When I write about traffic (the kind that’s on the road, not sexy blog traffic), I write from the ‘funded research point of view’ and I am keen to emphasise that!
I quote a snippet I read somewhere – quote from one site, that’s plagiarism, quote from three, that’s research! 😉
Michael K. Reynolds says
Good words of wisdom in this post.
As the author of a historical novel set in the 1840’s I run into the same challenge. I love researching the history behind my books, but I must be careful that I don’t get too carried away with trying to pack in interesting facts and tidbits or it gets in the way of telling a great story.
This delightful article makes a compelling argument for being a fiction writer. 😉
Perfect timing! I spent Thursday afternoon in a PR session sponsored by a lobbyist group attempting to convince me that everything I knew about a particular food additive was wrong. The science was impressive — but the only problem was the “other side” also threw around multisyllabic words and had MDs shilling their point of view. So what’s a consumer to do? Make up your own mind!
Research is no longer pure. Facts are no longer immutable. Opinions? Now THAT’S something I can get a handle on. 🙂
Shane Arthur says
Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been reading a few websites that throw everything out the window I’ve know about two issues up until this point. Hard to believe two opposing sides can be so…opposing.
@Sean: I would say switch 90% of facts and figures research time to customer research.
Khürt L. Williams says
Great article. Quite a few of my blog posts went unwritten because the research was taking longer that the post was worth to me.
Melissa Karnaze says
I don’t see copywriting as being about the facts, but about what to do because of them (or the lack of them).
Scientific research only gives you so much information, and it often doesn’t provide enough of the types of information that people need to make important life decisions.
A recent SCIAM blurb mentioned a study showing how people only pay attention to experts if they arleady agree with them. Haven’t read the study yet… which brings up another point. If you aren’t going to read the primary sources, then you’re not really grasping the facts.
Such a huge topic, the intersection of scientific research and business (as an aim of copyblogging). It really boils down to the differences between thinking and doing, and how science is a cultural practice.
Btw, that opening really pulled me in!
This is a sexy idea, but wrong.
I will not contribute to the continual dumbing down of content. Anecdotal evidence does huge amounts of damage to people, whether it be about homeopathy, religion, PowerBands, weight loss drugs, or the thousands of other bits of bad advice people follow because they don’t know better.
There was just an article in NYT about education research – basically, everything you know about learning is wrong. Not because the research changed, but because THE RESEARCH WAS DONE AND PEOPLE WERE TOO LAZY TO COMMUNICATE IT TO THE TEACHING PROFESSION AT LARGE. Or maybe someone’s egg timer ran out. But they had been following anecdotal evidence that got passed down so many times that it was assumed to be actual research.
This smacks of the type of person who says “evolution is just a theory.” Yes, science changes and revises itself – indeed, that is the very nature of science – but the whole point is they do the very best they can with the information they have to get it right. Is it right with 100% certainty? No, but it’s a hell of a lot better than a one-off experience. I really, really don’t care about your personal experience if I want to know if something is true or correct. (PS: You’re right smart people get it wrong all the time. Now, did people think the earth was flat because of research, or because they listened to idiots who told them it was with no evidence? Nice try, but that example disproves your point. As far as brain plasticity – the science is STILL in its infancy; of course they’re not batting 1000 and they’ll probably be the first to admit how little we know about the brain. But try to say the same about robust theories with significant, varied research backing them up.)
You want to do it on Twitter or your personal blog, fine. But those of us who wish to keep our jobs and credibility would do well to ignore this anecdotal advice. (I work in a marketing department in a fairly technical industry. Puff pieces are ok sometimes, but unless you’re selling something completely subjective like the awesomeness of Coca-Cola, you better have something to back it up. And if you don’t, your product is probably as worthless as the anecdotes that come with it.)
Dave Doolin says
“I will not contribute to the continual dumbing down of content. ”
I won’t either. I’m limiting my customers to people who are willing to put in the work to “smarten up.”
It’s (evidently) not a big market.
Apparently there’s little competition, though, so I should do well.
Job security – good point.
I think people who visit this blog are willing to put in that effort, such as Don below, so I’m a bit disappointed this article promotes cutting corners. Good writing is hard. It is time consuming. It requires research and/or thoughtfulness. And that’s why I get paid; that’s what separates me from the other college grads I write for.
Love your content enough to care that it’s right.
MaLinda Johnson says
“Tumeric” not “Turmeric” (I am a grammar guru). But otherwise a very well written article. Very good angle on an irritating problem.
Sonia Simone says
You made me look! But Merriam-Webster, Wikipedia, and my spice rack agree: turmeric.
It’s turmeric alright. 😉
Don Platon says
Well written article! New to writing, I spend an inordinate of time researching technical issues. I’ve learned to always check the comments. Many people are willing to provide valuable supplemental information.
Is it possible a great blog post is a mini-Wiki?
And also a mini-LinkedIn?
Simon Gornick says
There’s no such thing as a fact, so excessive research can tie you down. Blogging is about opinion, based on experience, based on observation, based on educated supposotions. The best posts are the ones which extend thoughts and ideas – and excite the reader into further thoughts and ideas. Research plays less of a role that one might imagine.
Russ Mars says
No such thing as a fact, huh? Oh, then it’s not a fact you wrote and directed “Art of Revenge?” I guess I did, then. Please, no one bother to research that, it will just tie you down. Take my word for it, I wrote and directed that movie and it was really horrible, in my opinion.
Just ribbin’ you there, Gorn!
Strong Waves says
It’s true, for every fact you find there is a contradiction. The best thing to do is always let them know both sides, that way they can decide on their own.
Wow! Really nice point of view.
The truth is that even when you are 100% sure of a fact – there are always times when somebody or even something comes up and and makes you wonder.
I am currently working on a blog to help university students with various questions they may have. It is more often than not that people not directly involved in the Administration of the Faculty where I work, say something and insist on what they say is the only and real truth (concerning laws and procedures for example) that make me wonder if I might be working in a totally different field all together.
It does sort of get in the way of my building the blog. For one thing I feel exactly what you said we shouldn’t do – research for hours and hours. Moreover, if there are going to be people out there giving information that is wrong, is it worth it? People do tend to take the pill that their best friend’s mother’s cousin’s neighbor’s son-in-law aunt took and felt better straight away, rather than go to the doctor themselves.
Anyway, I’ve had my say and thank you!
And also remember to double check facts found on the internet- not everyone that writes for the Internet is an expert in what they write about.
Thanks to Sean for the post and the discussion it spawned. My focus shifted from pieces of information to how that information is implemented within a line of reasoning. If our goal was to present “facts,” then a list would work just fine. However, if our goal is deliver or construct an understanding in the mind of the reader or to convince the reader, then information by itself won’t get the job done. Fact checking is important because if something is wrong or taken too far out of its original context, then the particular line of reasoning that you are trying to construct collapses. The expectations for the quality and precision of information presented differs with the type and objective of a particular piece of writing.
I LOVE case studies. Watching others and learning from them lets me apply different knowledge I otherwise wouldn’t have known to my goals. It is a learning process to trust and open up to other people when I’m doing the writing, but seeing other people do it and getting inspired helps.
Everyone is on their own learning path. I never assume anyone gets what I write about anymore when writing inspiration posts because whoever reads it takes what they need. But, I like to communicate with my readers and ask questions so they can post what they use at the end of the post.
Jef Menguin says
Thank you very much.
Most people believe without thinking. Yes, most specially when you start your sentence with “According to recent research…”
We cannot replace thinking with research. Research becomes powerful only when it serves to help people think critically.
Keep on writing.
This post is a godsend as I had been stuck on my research for days on end. Helped clear up my thoughts and put me back on track. THANKS A ZILLION!!
Russ Mars says
All good food for thought, especially for those who don’t need one more reason to claim “writer’s block.” Don’t get mired down in any aspect of your writing. If you find that happening, mark it, move on and come back to it later. But then, don’t make that an excuse not to do what you’ve got to do.
Problems with research and facts? These three bulleted problems in the post are fairly easy to address (my suggestions provided) and might just gear your thinking toward solutions to others that pop up:
* Research is often funded by lobby groups pushing their own agendas.
Solution: Be well familiar with a myriad of research sources known not to be associated. The word “corroborate” comes to mind. And if you are terrified your facts may be jammed down your throat, cite your source. You can blame them later, if you’re into the blame game.
* Passed-down information can lose relevant bits.
Solution: Don’t count on passed-down information. Yep, you’re now back in the research and corroboration boat.
* What was once fact has since been overturned by new evidence.
Solution: Qualify. Phrases that come in quite handy are “at this time,” “as of current reports,” “most recent findings,” “though these facts may be incomplete” and, well, you get my point.
As to this tidbit in the post, “It’s better to simply write what you know. Not only does it make for a good story, you can be secure that what you’re saying is really true, ” ahem. There is a difference between opinion and commentary, and factual reporting. Make sure your writing conveys that difference. Another handy phrase is, “In my opinion” or “in my experience.”
And this last bit, “Research won’t save you from being wrong. It’ll just get in the way of telling your story — and that’s more important than having irrefutable facts.” What a cop out! That’s about as lame as it gets, in my opinion.
Thanks for the post, Sean!
Sean, Thomas Kuhn wrote a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions where he laid out the now common knowledge that you’re butchering called the “paradigm shift.” He argued that, in scientific communities, there is an accepted set of knowledge that persists and that new evidence that contradicts that accepted knowledge is ignored until there is a “paradigm shift,” a shift in the paradigm of accepted knowledge.
Kuhn gives the evolution of truth structure and nuance, and you seem to misunderstand the nature of truth, and of research in general. You oversimplify, cite the flaws of information as though they were absolutes, and ultimately list a series of lazy excuses to dismiss the information around you for self-righteous reasons (you want to be above the facts, and you don’t want to have to worry about facts at all). You sound like a college freshman trying to sound smart in class by criticizing a study you have barely read, and not understood.
Can research hold back your storytelling, yes. Can that be bad in marketing, yes. But your article is not a reminder of the fickleness of truth, nor a reminder to not get lost in data and to focus on your story, your article is an irresponsible list of convenient, oversimplified, immature excuses to ignore research.
In comparison to your other work, I’m very disappointed in this article. One might say, you didn’t really do your research on this one.
Then again, notice how your most vocal critics (DC, Eric, and I) don’t give links to our websites… intellectual snobbery is problematically impractical in marketing, and perhaps you do have a point when it comes to expedience. Best.
This is a great theory/argument article which simple states that truth is relative. I have always wondered if facts on Wikipedia are true. And doing a little research one realizes that Wikipedia facts are written by people like you and me, not experts. The same applies to e-how and Howcast along with the other ‘how-to’ sites. Their way isn’t really the right way, it’s just their way of doing it.
My next point is, since this is ‘copy’blogger, that I believe one should only write sales copy of a product one has knowledge of. I recently bought a product promising lots of traffic and it turned out to be a social media sales method. Funny thing is it was shared by an affiliate ranking high on Google for ‘Making Money Online’. Sadly my promised traffic was nothing but another sales method using unreliable copy deceptive as it’s 60 day money back guarantee.
Russ Mars says
Ivin, is your comment about Wikipedia born of ignorance or selective commentary? You failed to acknowledge the point that facts entered there must be “verifiable against a published reliable source.” Otherwise, the unverifiable gets weeded out. If you don’t see that citation number next to statements of fact noting the source, sure, it’s a good idea to question it. However, there’s a great deal of reliable, documented and verified information found there. Those facts are easy to identify and corroborate, even if the quality of the writing itself isn’t always pro.
As to advertising copy, I usually assume that if there’s an attempt to sell me something, the ads are exaggerated, lacking full disclosure or just a downright lie. Sad to say, but that’s advertising these days.
Peter Abatan says
There is nothing that beats personal experience, at the same time the fact that it applies to you does not mean it applies to everyone else. Best to share your experience and let your readers identify with what you have stated.
I should have included this in my earlier comment. As Brian knows, I love the power of storytelling in advertising and sales. But, as I wrote in The Dark Side of Anecdotes, personal experiences can be misleading and downright dangerous.
Celebrity Jenny McCarthy’s false conclusion that her child developed autism from a standard vaccination (further bolstered by fraudulent research, one of the pitfalls described by Sean in the original post) has caused many parents to expose their children to diseases that are preventable and had largely been eradicated in the U.S.
If your blog is about a fluffy topic, or if you are writing in an op-ed style, writing from your gut is fine. But if you are offering serious advice about health, finance, business, etc., you need to get your facts right. If the facts are being debated, then point that out too.
I have no problem offering my opinion on how a research finding might be applied in a business context. I always try, though, to make it clear where I’m moving from hard research data into opinion or even speculation.
Interesting discussion, and I’d guess much of the divide we see here is less about whether accuracy is important than about differences in blogging styles and objectives.
Marcy Gerena says
“personal experiences can be misleading and downright dangerous”
I agree it can be dangerous if one takes the information as a “blanket” fact for all circumstances.
Steven H says
This is a very, very important point NeuroMarketing. Modern day journalism is already far too well known for its laziness when it comes ot checking the facts. That is part of why bloggers exist: to correct mistakes and provide more accurate information.
By the way, Neuromarketing – I absolutely love your blog! I have been following it for about a month now. Keep up the good work!
Glad you enjoy the blog, Stephen. Thanks!
James M Cooper says
How many times have you read a post which has one stat from a recent survey? One or two stats in isolation without a deeper understanding of countless other factors (e.g. the profiles of those surveyed), can almost be meaningless.
Good reminder about the value of case studies and stories.
Been away on workshops so haven’t been able to respond. However some may have missed the point completely. I’d rather see a writer get an article done than get mired in research. If you’ve seen writers suffer for hours you’d agree with me at least a bit. I’m not saying research is bad at all. I’m saying you’re going to go nuts if every article you write has to have oodles of research.
Russ Mars says
If some have missed the point completely, perhaps it’s because you failed to make it completely. A poor writer blames his readers.
Overall, in attempting to point out research challenges writers face, challenges that seasoned pros are all too aware of and adept at handling, you have conveyed contempt for a well-established, basic rule of good writing—research, research, research!
Veterans may merely roll their eyes and chuckle at your notions, but those new to the writing game, when first confronted with what can be daunting research challenges and looking for a way around them, may be led by your article to embrace the belief, falsely, that it’s not that important. If they continue believing that, they have nearly assured themselves failure in the writing game, especially if they seek any sort of respectability as writers. You have done those readers a great disservice. Among the seasoned pros, you have marked yourself as rather inexperienced and have dented your credibility.
Kate Murphy says
The fastest way to lose readers is to be unreliable. Not having your facts straight makes people wonder if they can trust what you are writing.
Sean D'Souza says
It’s a dent I’m willing to take. I knew what I was in for when I wrote this article. I didn’t for a moment expect those who do enormous research to take this lying down.
However I stand by this position, because my goal is not to be right or wrong, but to show inexperienced writers how to quickly put an article together. If a single article dents the entire body of work I’ve done since 2002 (and it is considerable) then so be it.
I can live with the dent.
I expected the response to be polarising, but I didn’t write it to be polarising. I wrote it because people genuinely spend three-four hours a day mired in research when writing an article. If my article got them to write a great article without the research, and they become great writers, then so be it. I’m willing to take whatever punches you want to throw at me.
If you read the article again, you’ll see that you’ve read what you want to read. I didn’t say you needed to avoid facts. I just said that the facts aren’t always needed. There’s a bit of a difference between the two statements.
If you read the article, it clearly says: Research matters. Facts matter.” If you simply want to take one bit of the article and quote it and say that “facts don’t matter” then there’s not a lot I can do about it, can I?
Sean D'Souza says
And part of the problem is that this article should have been better qualified. It’s not meant as advice for “everyone”. It’s more focused as advice for those who need to improve their writing skills and are getting stuck at the word “go”.
When starting to write, (or even a few months into writing) it’s important to get going rather than search endlessly for research. It hampers your productivity and doesn’t get you off the starting blocks.
I’ll take the blame for that. I should have qualified it better. 🙂
Russ Mars says
Sean, fair enough. It’s not my intent to go after you with a dagger.
Perhaps we can agree that research can take many forms. Digging through books and online sources for three hours before you write an article is one way. Another is the research of living, also very important to fill up the writer’s well. We pick up all kinds of information as we make our way down the path, and it can and will be applied as we write, sometimes hours after we experienced it, sometimes decades. It’s all useful and applied as the story dictates.
I never meant to suggest that endless hours of research should lead to listing a long string of dry facts that we’d laughingly call writing. Often, facts gleaned during research never actually make it into an article, but what’s uncovered during the process helps us to better articulate whatever we are trying to say. Nor do I think you believe, or even meant to suggest, that research and facts are not an important part of writing.
I couldn’t agree with you more that we can’t afford to let research, or any other aspect of writing, mire us down and paralyze us in our effort to get the story told. Twenty hours of research is of little use when you’ve missed your deadline.
Write, dammit, write.
Renee Malove says
I like the emphasis on writing what you know, because this is a trap that SEO marketers find themselves falling into over and over again. You go out there and try and write about what you don’t know. But you’re writing about what you don’t know. So you go out and do the research. But you have no personal experience to back that research up, and so you find yourself hoping that everything you’ve read is correct as you turn over the article/blog post/report that you just spent 17 hours putting together, only to get slapped on the wrist for not getting your “facts” straight and watching 17 hours of your life go straight into the trash can. Limit your scope. No one has to be good at everything, and at the end of the day you’ll be glad that you did.
Carmen Brodeur says
Unless you are writing for a technical journal or blog, most people aren’t interested in facts, as much as opinions. I agree – write about what you know.
Russ Mars says
Carmen, I agree, people are quite interested in opinions. I hear and read opinions all the time, but the ones I give most attention to, the ones that are most worthy of consideration are those of people who can support their opinions with something more than imagined meanderings. Facts are the foundation upon which the framework of opinions is built.
If someone wants to express an opinion well, they are going to need to back it up with something, otherwise it’s generally noting but blather. If there are no facts to back it up, it becomes quite apparent the person expressing their opinion doesn’t know what they are talking about.
Granted, that’s merely my opinion, but it’s backed up by the fact that I’ve listened to countless people blather on about things they truly know very little of, and I tune them out rather quickly. I will, however, admit I’m quite odd, even though I encounter many others who feel the same way. I’d certainly not resort to name calling, but these others, upon hearing someone express an opinion about something of which they obviously know nothing, have used terms like “idiot” and “moron.” Isn’t that tacky?
How about you? Do you delight in listening to people who don’t know what they are talking about.
Renee Malove says
I find that almost everything we read, whether it’s supported by fact or not, is in fact reflective of someone’s opinion. Of course, I’m currently wading knee deep in the middle of a class on applying critical thinking to marketing and advertising, so perhaps I’m just looking for slant and fallacies everywhere I look!
The point is (yes, I have one, I swear) that it doesn’t matter whether you have facts to back an issue up. At some point, your personal feelings on the issue are going to come shining through. So in a way, you’re using facts to detract from the issue, which is that you’re stating an opinion, while at the same time using those same facts to support your argument and convince people to share in your opinion on that particular issue.
So what you’re saying is that your post could possibly be only half true – right? Just checkin’ the facts! 🙂
Russ Mars says
To illustrate the relationship between facts and opinions and the effect on the reader when a writer’s opinion is, obviously, based on incorrect information:
“I think President Obama is one of the finest [opinion] Irish Americans to ever hold that office.”
Now, what would you think of the writer expressing that opinion or any other opinions or information he may wish to share with you?
Certainly, emotions, gut-instincts, etc. enter into opinions we form, but our opinions manifest from information we have taken in, be it correct information or not. Opinions are, by their very nature, assessments, judgments and feelings we express because of information we receive. Our opinions can change because of a change of facts.
Let’s say someone is offended by a reported sexual infidelity a politician engaged in while in office. The opinion that the politician can no longer be trusted about anything may be formed, even though that politician is, in reality, quite trustworthy in all other matters. Later, it’s proved that the politician is completely innocent of committing that infidelity. Could opinion change because of the change of facts?
Please, don’t tell me that facts have nothing to do with the opinions we form, or that accuracy of facts have no impact on the reader’s perception of opinions we express in writing.
Marcy Gerena says
Thank you for writing this article. I understand exactly where you are coming from and the message you are conveying.
#2 Stands out: Personal experience
I do agree knowingly and intentionally providing false information is wrong, because it’s deceiving another human being. (Key: Knowingly and intentionally) However, personal experience … well, it’s personal experience.
History repeats itself and people communicate differently. I have found in several different resources what appears to have no connection really do have the same message.
Steven H says
The research I find most difficult are the stories, analogies, and links that my readers are going to want to have access to if my writing is going to have any credibility. I also try to integrate scientific studies when I can (I already follow several sites on a daily basis, so might as well), but I try to keep them simple and to the point.
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