Making Research Invisible, Or At Least Not Intrusive
June 21, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Helen Collins Sitler
Two summers ago chimney swifts nested in my chimney. I didn’t know a thing about swifts, except that they were there, and that I was intrigued enough to write about them.
As I sat surrounded by field guides to birds, I didn’t know what I needed to know so I took a lot of notes. Gradually, I noticed that field guides all use similar categories: description, voice, habitat, migration …. Those categories provided ideas for organizing and for section headings when I began to draft.
All the notetaking served to narrow/winnow relevant information. How exactly does the swift, with its stuttering flight pattern (description), manage to zoom into my chimney without conking itself unconscious or crash-landing on the damper? The answer to that question was useful. I was learning about swifts’ capacity for distance. Did you know they can sleep while they fly? Which is good, since their migration takes them thousands of miles from North America to Central and South America. Some information, like swifts’ chittering utterances (voice) turned out not to be relevant for the piece that emerged. Still, notes I never used cemented a deeper expertise, which gave me confidence in the writing.
I did a happy dance when a local ornithologist fact-checked a draft and reported back, “You have the biology correct.” For one reader, at least, I had successfully woven in uncited research as I linked the nestlings’ development with my own recovery from a hip replacement. Now, with that essay out for review, I’m hoping an editor somewhere concurs.
For a retired academic like me, writing creative nonfiction feels like coloring outside the lines. I taught Research Writing to hundreds of high school and college students. We slogged through MLA and APA documentation and sometimes other formats, depending on students’ majors. Documentation is ingrained in my psyche.
Now, retired and shifting from academic writing to creative nonfiction, I no longer want (Ballenger 174-76) or (Ballenger, 2009, pp. 174-76) to intrude on my prose. But making the research slide into sentences invisibly, or at least not intrusively, is a challenge. So I’ve returned to my teaching roots for help. I cannot write well without doing exactly the same things I asked my students to do.
When I taught Research Writing, I required students to take notes from their sources. Whether on the screen or printed out, from an interview or an observation, they had to write notes. Why? Because writing notes by hand increases the likelihood that you’ll remember that material better. And because interacting with those notes by injecting your own commentary will offer new insights. Highlighting, underlining, and margin notes on a printout are nice, but hand-written notes and personal commentary make the magic. Students hated doing this. It was labor-intensive and time-consuming. I remained adamant. “Turn in notes from at least three sources,” I would tell them. “I want to see the information you’ve gathered and also your personal responses/questions/confusions about that information.”
Guess what. When students had to write out notes and add personal insights, they began to gain control of the material. After some notetaking days, we would do what compositionist Bruce Ballenger calls a bookless draft, i.e., an information dump. I instructed, “Ten minutes to skim through the notes you’ve taken. Now put them inside your backpacks. Do NOT pull them out. Now empty your brain of everything you know. Write about why you chose your topic and what you’ve found. Create a scene about a person, a place. Invent a dialogue. Just write.” To their surprise, students could write about their topics in their own words. Suddenly, they realized they KNEW this stuff. They had been working the words and their own thinking together all along, in their notetaking. Now they could begin to claim expertise in their own voices. This drafting was often awkward and full of gaps, but even that was instructive. What do you still need to find out?
My own journals are full of research notes (carefully documented), random thoughts derived from those notes, and awkward attempts to merge the two into something coherent, graceful, and mostly quotation-free. Often this drafting surprises me and leads me to links that might surprise a reader. Who would expect that measures of the whiteness of LED lightbulbs—the differences between 5000K and 2700K–held the key to why I so desperately changed out lightbulbs in my home after my husband died? “Light Therapy,” published in Hippocampus, explains how the light spectrum connected to my grief.
Some academic safety nets, like keeping careful track of sources, still apply. For all researched writing, I’ve learned to keep two copies. One, with the research made as invisible as possible, becomes the submission copy. The other is identical, but filled with footnotes and links to electronic sources. It stays in a computer file so I can provide fact-verification if an editor asks.
Re-immersion in eloquent, fact-filled writing is helpful, too. In classes that weren’t Research Writing and where students had more freedom to color outside the lines, we often read Brian Doyle’s short essay “Joyas Volodoras.” To my class I would say, “Highlight anyplace where Doyle uses information he had to have looked up. The things a person doesn’t walk around already knowing.” It didn’t take long for students to highlight so heavily that their page and a half of text started to curl from wetness. Students would look up from their papers puzzled. How can this be packed full of research, yet read like a poem? How can it be so emotional but at the same time so fact-y?
If you haven’t read “Joyas,” you need to. I re-read it periodically, to remind myself that research can be presented with beauty, elegance, and even humor. Then I return to taking notes and writing information dumps and know that the outcome will be worth the labor.
Helen Collins Sitler’s creative nonfiction—all with a bit or a lot of research—has appeared or is forthcoming in Hippocampus, Harmony, The Sunlight Press, and Post Road. She is currently intrigued by such things as high school graduation rates in the 1920s and baseball player Roberto Clemente’s many accomplishments.