Mentioning your research (Mistake #10)

This will be obvious and second nature to many of you, but I see it often enough to justify an entry.

Let’s take this extract from a fictitious article intended for a health magazine:

When I spoke to dietitian Victoria Plum on the telephone, and asked her what she thought of the study into the nutritional properties of the long-forgotten fnoogleberry, she said, “Its extremely high vitamin Q content means it may help ease the symptoms of Boggle’s Disease.”

Later that day, a helpful local librarian used an online search to find me an earlier study published in the Herbal Tymes, which told me that the berry has aphrodisiac properties too.

The problems should be obvious to you. Your readers are unlikely to care which questions you ask an interviewee, or what medium you use to do so, or when you learn a fact, or who helps you locate it, or how. Your research should remain hidden to them. They merely want its results. So:

Dietitian Victoria Plum is an international authority on rare fruit. “The fnoogleberry’s extremely high vitamin Q content means it may help ease the symptoms of Boggle’s Disease,” she says.

And that’s not all. According to a study published in the Herbal Tymes in 1964, the berry has aphrodisiac properties too.

Don’t mention yourself at all. Say what you need to say and say no more.

I’ve exaggerated for effect, of course, and I’m sure you’re thinking you’d never make such mistakes, but sometimes the slip-up can be so much subtler and therefore easily done and easily missed:

A quick look in An Encyclopaedia of Fruit Facts confirms fnoogleberries have only 14 calories per 100g.

Again, the reader doesn’t need to know that all it took was ‘a quick look’. Instead:

According to An Encyclopaedia of Fruit Facts, fnoogleberries have only 14 calories per 100g.

I’ve been trying to come up with an everyday or uncontrived example where ignoring this advice may be acceptable or even preferable. But I can’t. Over to you.

Comments 4

  • I think fiction writers often fall into the trap of wanting to show off their research as well. Good advice!

  • Hi Alex
    Thank you for this post. I think I'll find this very useful to remember as I tend to be a bit of a rambler both when writing and speaking! This should cut down text by 50%ish. I gather that the 3 essential qualities in the sentence/s are Name the authority, briefly list why the authority is qualified or recognised and the quote itself.
    My thoughts on your last paragraph are that you would ignore your advice if you were writing on how to research or if you felt that your research techniques were under scrutiny for some reason. If I think of anything else I'll post again.

  • India – I don't write or critique fiction, but I can imagine that must be difficult to resist, especially in cases where you're researching, I don't know, some particular historical period and learning far more than you're ever likely to need. What to do with all that extra knowledge you've amassed?

    Mel – yep, possibly. Thinking about it, perhaps also some of the more explorative and investigative pieces you may see in the Sunday supplements might warrant such an approach.

    Thanks both for taking the time to respond. Am really delighted that busy writers, both aspiring and established, are taking the time to comment on this and all earlier posts!

  • […] Some beginner writers put together their articles like this. It’s over-enthusiasm, quite often. They’re so keen, and so passionate, that in it all goes, fairly unedited. “This is what I know – and this is what I want you to know and what I want you to know that I know.” If it’s their pet or specialist subject, it can be hugely tempting to really go to town, with little titbits, extra asides in brackets, that the writer hopes will earn ‘bonus marks’, never mind the snowballing four-figure word count. Some even mention their research (see Mistake No. 10). […]

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