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Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 12, 2015 9:09 am

When I was teaching high school, I frequently asked my students to write reports of varying lengths—from short paragraphs on a particular topic to full-length term papers. The absolute most difficult thing for them to grasp was how to use research from other sources.

Last week’s lesson for fiction writers covered how to write factual information without sounding like an encyclopedia entry. That’s even more important for writers of nonfiction—while some nonfiction is necessarily dry and purely factual, not all nonfiction must be so. If it’s appropriate for your intended audience, there’s no reason why nonfiction can’t also be beautiful writing.
Here are a few examples, using the same research:

1. The Ivory Coast, which produces more cocoa than any other country in the world, extensively uses child labor in the harvesting of cacao. In fact, although Americans tend to feel that slavery is a thing of the past, there are over 200,000 children working on cacao plantations in west Africa, and as many as 12,000 of them are victims of human trafficking. This is dangerous work; children toil long hours handling plants that have been sprayed with pesticides, and they are often injured by sharp knives or machetes.

2. A boy, not yet eleven years old, grasps a branch of a cacao tree and hacks at the ripened bean with a machete. It is early morning; he will repeat this action hundreds of times throughout the long, hot day. He has stopped thinking of his mother’s cries, her reaching arms as he was snatched away—he learned weeks ago that when he wipes the tears from his eyes, they burn from the chemicals sprayed on the cacao trees. He does not know that there are thousands of boys just like him—he only knows the hot sun and the cacao beans and his machete. He has never tasted chocolate, and he does not know that the finest chocolate is exactly the color of his glistening skin.

Of course, if you’re writing an academic paper or report, you’ll need to include more actual facts and statistics. But if you’re writing for the Weekly Challenge, or for a blog, or for an audience for whom you want your writing to have an emotional impact, you’ll want to use some of the techniques of creative nonfiction. Those include all of the best characteristics of fiction writing: interesting word choice, varied sentence structure, use of figurative language, imagery, characterization, dialogue, and many more.

For a really good example of well-written nonfiction which uses researched facts, try almost anything written by Bill Bryson. I especially loved One Summer: America, 1927.

By the way, I got the information in the paragraphs above (a particular interest of mine) from the Wikipedia entries on children in cocoa production, which leads me into the topic of plagiarism.

Some of my high school students, unfortunately, would copy entire sentences or paragraphs from their sources. Happily, that didn’t occur often, but it was common to get students who never grasped the difference between research and plagiarism; they felt if they changed one or two words to synonyms, or if they slightly rearranged a sentence, then the report was now “in their own words.”

In my decade at FaithWriters, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an instance of intentional plagiarism. But it is important, I think, to understand the degrees of plagiarism—you may be surprised at what constitutes plagiarism in your writing.

There are three types of plagiarism. The first type occurs when someone uses another author’s exact words without indicating that he is doing so. The same is true if the words are lifted from a song, a movie, a speech, etc., etc. Depending on the situation, even a single word might need to be indicated as a direct quotation. Proper attribution will require opening and closing quotation marks for shorter quotations OR “blocking” the quotation for longer ones.

Okay…now look back at that previous paragraph. I didn’t write it; my friend Steve Fitschen did, at my request. He’s a lawyer, and he’s taught legal writing at the college level, so I figured he’d know more than I do about the subject. So I definitely should have blocked that paragraph, or put it in quotation marks with Steve’s name as the author.

Steve went on to say: “The second type [of plagiarism] occurs in the manner you described—the writer uses someone else’s writing as a starting point and merely rearranges the sentence structure and/or substitutes synonyms. Most people understand that if you do this WITHOUT attribution, you have committed plagiarism. However, many people do not understand that if you do this WITH attribution, you have STILL committed plagiarism.”

If I were tempted to try to fiddle with Steve’s words to pass them off as my own, I might have done something like this:

…Writers sometimes use other people’s writing as a starting point and simply substitute words that mean the same thing or rearrange the sentence structure.

I hope you can see that even though I changed that first sentence, it is not my writing. I couldn’t have come up with that sentence without Steve’s sentence existing first.

Finally, there’s this (still Steve): “The third type of plagiarism occurs when someone uses someone else’s IDEA(S) without attribution, even though it/they has/have been paraphrased or summarized. This is true whether the amount of material used comes from a couple of sentences or multiple pages or more. Attribution is still required through inline citation(s) or note(s).”

Now back to me—keep in mind that if you’re writing an academic paper, you’ll definitely want to use the attribution and citation style that your professor requires. Obviously, I’ve not done that here, because this is a very casual forum. FaithWriters doesn’t have a mandated citation style; nevertheless, when you’ve used research, you need to cite it as an author’s note after your piece. Include enough information so that your readers can find your source. If you’re self-publishing something, look up citation styles and find one that seems appropriate for your material. If someone else is publishing your writing, you’ll work with them to provide proper attributions.

HOMEWORK: Go back to my cacao slavery examples above. Write two similar paragraphs on a topic that's of interest to you using research—one paragraph that’s heavy on facts and statistics, and the other that uses good writing to provide the same information. Keep your paragraphs approximately the same length as mine, above. (Don’t forget to provide your source/s).

Do you have a comment or question about using research in nonfiction? About creative nonfiction? About citing one’s sources? About what constitutes plagiarism? Post it here.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby itsjoanne » Sat Sep 12, 2015 10:21 am

glorybee wrote:Steve went on to say: “The second type [of plagiarism] occurs in the manner you described—the writer uses someone else’s writing as a starting point and merely rearranges the sentence structure and/or substitutes synonyms. Most people understand that if you do this WITHOUT attribution, you have committed plagiarism. However, many people do not understand that if you do this WITH attribution, you have STILL committed plagiarism.”


Okay - now this confuses me. If I attribute someone's ideas, rearranging the sentences, it is STILL plagiarism? So, if I said, "Steve F says, in his book blah blah blah, that starting off with someone else's writing and rearranging it a bit is also plagiarism," I would be plagiarizing? So the only way not to plagiarize is to quote directly, with attribution?

Help me here, Jan :)

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Re: Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 12, 2015 10:26 am

itsjoanne wrote:
glorybee wrote:Steve went on to say: “The second type [of plagiarism] occurs in the manner you described—the writer uses someone else’s writing as a starting point and merely rearranges the sentence structure and/or substitutes synonyms. Most people understand that if you do this WITHOUT attribution, you have committed plagiarism. However, many people do not understand that if you do this WITH attribution, you have STILL committed plagiarism.”


Okay - now this confuses me. If I attribute someone's ideas, rearranging the sentences, it is STILL plagiarism? So, if I said, "Steve F says, in his book blah blah blah, that starting off with someone else's writing and rearranging it a bit is also plagiarism," I would be plagiarizing? So the only way not to plagiarize is to quote directly, with attribution?

Help me here, Jan :)


I edited Steve's note to me since it was getting too long, but here's the rest of what he said in that paragraph. I hope it helps you (I don't know a lot about it, since I'm a fiction writer).

Says Steve: "The reason this is so is because the attribution in such a case indicates that you got your IDEA from the cited source. In reality, you took much more from the source—you took the basic wording/phraseology. To avoid this type of plagiarism, one needs to first get out of the first sub-category—make sure attribution is present. Then, logically, there are two ways to fix the rest of the problem: Either give a direct quotation (with the required quotation marks or blocking) or TRULY paraphrase or summarize. In the latter fix, the inline citation or note is simply placed after the paraphrase or summary."

I guess the difficulty comes then, with "truly paraphrasing." Where's the line between paraphrasing and simply re-wording?

Maybe I can go back to the first paragraph in cocoa production slavery for an answer to that. The sentences from the Wikipedia article I used are these:

"The widespread use of children in cocoa production is controversial, not only for the concerns about child labor and exploitation, but also because up to 12,000 of the 200,000 children working in Côte d'Ivoire, the world's biggest producer of cocoa, may be victims of trafficking or slavery...Many of these tasks could be hazardous when performed by children, according to the ILO. Mixing and applying chemicals can be hazardous due to pesticide contamination, especially because no protective clothing is worn during application. Clearing vegetation and harvesting pods can be hazardous because these tasks are often done using machetes, which can cause lacerations..."

And so you don't have to scroll, here's my paragraph:

The Ivory Coast, which produces more cocoa than any other country in the world, extensively uses child labor in the harvesting of cacao. In fact, although Americans tend to feel that slavery is a thing of the past, there are over 200,000 children working on cacao plantations in west Africa, and as many as 12,000 of them are victims of human trafficking. This is dangerous work; children toil long hours handling plants that have been sprayed with pesticides, and they are often injured by sharp knives or machetes.

***

I think you can see that although the facts I used were taken from the Wikipedia article, the writing is substantially different--it's all mine.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby itsjoanne » Sat Sep 12, 2015 1:30 pm

glorybee wrote:
I guess the difficulty comes then, with "truly paraphrasing." Where's the line between paraphrasing and simply re-wording?

Maybe I can go back to the first paragraph in cocoa production slavery for an answer to that. The sentences from the Wikipedia article I used are these:

"The widespread use of children in cocoa production is controversial, not only for the concerns about child labor and exploitation, but also because up to 12,000 of the 200,000 children working in Côte d'Ivoire, the world's biggest producer of cocoa, may be victims of trafficking or slavery...Many of these tasks could be hazardous when performed by children, according to the ILO. Mixing and applying chemicals can be hazardous due to pesticide contamination, especially because no protective clothing is worn during application. Clearing vegetation and harvesting pods can be hazardous because these tasks are often done using machetes, which can cause lacerations..."

And so you don't have to scroll, here's my paragraph:

The Ivory Coast, which produces more cocoa than any other country in the world, extensively uses child labor in the harvesting of cacao. In fact, although Americans tend to feel that slavery is a thing of the past, there are over 200,000 children working on cacao plantations in west Africa, and as many as 12,000 of them are victims of human trafficking. This is dangerous work; children toil long hours handling plants that have been sprayed with pesticides, and they are often injured by sharp knives or machetes.

***

I think you can see that although the facts I used were taken from the Wikipedia article, the writing is substantially different--it's all mine.


Thanks, Jan - I DO get it now.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 12, 2015 9:25 pm

Just giving this topic a little bump, as it got buried beneath a few others. Carry on.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby yvonblake » Sun Sep 13, 2015 9:10 pm

When I taught elementary school, it was hard for the kids not to write down whole thoughts when they researched for a report. I taught them to only write a number and one associated word - to remember what the number meant or names of people and places - to be sure they are spelled correctly or single word to remember a fact. The fewer words used in taking research notes, the less chance of plagerism. Then I told them to close the encyclopedia, (I know, that dates me.) to put their resource material away, and to write out their rough drafts with only their notes and memory of what they learned.

Once when I was a kid (6th grade), I got in trouble for plagerism and had to rewrite the answer to an essay question in front of a teacher. It was almost identical to my orginal answer because I remembered what the book said. I didn't mean to "copy." I only remembered too well. I didn't think I had done anything wrong.
(btw - I was then lectured about the seriousness of plagerism and not penalized for knowing the correct answer.)

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Re: Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby glorybee » Sun Sep 13, 2015 9:26 pm

Vonnie, I used to tell my students something very similar. My students had learning disabilities--some of them severe learning problems--and they found this activity very difficult, too. It was a problem, to be sure.

My own daughters were very good writers, even in elementary school. The first time my oldest daughter showed me a report--I think it was about a president--in 4th or 5th grade, I kind of accused her of taking it too closely from the encyclopedia. She insisted that she hadn't, and I actually took her report and compared it to the encyclopedia article. She was right, and I had to apologize.

But I was actually going to suggest something very much like this exercise when I wrote this lesson; it's a very valuable way to write nonfiction. I just ran out of room here...but I thank you for posting it. Hopefully someone else will find it useful, too.

By the way...check the spelling of "plagiarism." :?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby pheeweed » Tue Sep 22, 2015 9:32 am

My question is related to creative non-fiction. I'm struggling with how to use the research in the narrative. I'm writing a biography based mostly on letters written by my subject. He described a tonsillectomy he went through in 1920. I also found a medical resource from that period that described the procedure in detail. So I combined the two sources into one description. Is that okay?

Here's a piece of it for context.

as soon as he went into the operating room, his “heart began to thump and pound” and he was “downright scared.” In 1920 it was considered a simple operation and doctors often chose to use local anesthesia because chloroform offered unnecessary risks.

The doctor first applied 10% cocaine hydrochloride to the base of John’s tongue, then dipped an applicator in 10% cocaine and inserted it for several minutes between the base of his tongue and each of his tonsils. With the tonsils numbed, he injected them with a .01% cocaine salt solution.

John’s fingers began to tingle. . .While Dr. Lewis cut through the tonsil, John’s feet began to dance on the floor and he “sure felt rotten.”

The middle section comes from the medical resource. Should I say "it's likely that the doctor . . .?" Also, how should I cite it? In the text or in a footnote?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby glorybee » Tue Sep 22, 2015 12:27 pm

pheeweed wrote:My question is related to creative non-fiction. I'm struggling with how to use the research in the narrative. I'm writing a biography based mostly on letters written by my subject. He described a tonsillectomy he went through in 1920. I also found a medical resource from that period that described the procedure in detail. So I combined the two sources into one description. Is that okay?

Here's a piece of it for context.

as soon as he went into the operating room, his “heart began to thump and pound” and he was “downright scared.” In 1920 it was considered a simple operation and doctors often chose to use local anesthesia because chloroform offered unnecessary risks.

The doctor first applied 10% cocaine hydrochloride to the base of John’s tongue, then dipped an applicator in 10% cocaine and inserted it for several minutes between the base of his tongue and each of his tonsils. With the tonsils numbed, he injected them with a .01% cocaine salt solution.

John’s fingers began to tingle. . .While Dr. Lewis cut through the tonsil, John’s feet began to dance on the floor and he “sure felt rotten.”

The middle section comes from the medical resource. Should I say "it's likely that the doctor . . .?" Also, how should I cite it? In the text or in a footnote?


That question would be better answered by your publisher or your editor--they probably have a preferred style. If you're self-publishing, the citation can be done any of several ways, but I'd prefer an end note rather that in-text citation or footnote (because those can interrupt the flow).

I also don't care for "it's likely that the doctor..." because it removes the reader one step away from your narrative.

You didn't ask me this, but I'll mention it anyway--are the quotation marks necessary? They seemed distracting to me. I think I'd prefer either

...as soon as he went into the operating room, his heart began to thump and pound, and he was considerably frightened. In 1920, it was considered a simple operation and doctors often chose to use local anesthesia because chloroform offered unnecessary risks.

The doctor first applied 10% cocaine hydrochloride to the base of John’s tongue, then dipped an applicator in 10% cocaine and inserted it for several minutes between the base of his tongue and each of his tonsils. With the tonsils numbed, he injected them with a .01% cocaine salt solution.

John’s fingers began to tingle. . .While Dr. Lewis cut through the tonsil, John’s feet began to dance on the floor and he started to feel quite ill.


OR...

...he went into the operating room.

"Hey, doc," he said, "my heart's thumping and pounding. I gotta tell you--I'm downright scared."

In 1920 it was considered a simple operation and doctors often chose to use local anesthesia because chloroform offered unnecessary risks. The doctor first applied 10% cocaine hydrochloride to the base of John’s tongue, then dipped an applicator in 10% cocaine and inserted it for several minutes between the base of his tongue and each of his tonsils. With the tonsils numbed, he injected them with a .01% cocaine salt solution.

John’s fingers began to tingle. . .While Dr. Lewis cut through the tonsil, John’s feet began to dance on the floor. Later, he told his mother, "I sure felt rotten!"


I should also say that in your version and both of mine, the 2nd paragraph doesn't seem to match the others in tone. It reads very encyclopedic--is there some way that you can be sure that even the researched bits have your own voice?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby CatLin » Tue Sep 22, 2015 6:18 pm

Great lesson! I write a lot of non-fiction, and this is all very helpful. Thank you, Vonnie, for your post also - excellent advice! I tend to remember what I read too well, also, especially if I take copious notes.

I'm still confused about plagiarism of of IDEAS. That seems very broad. Can you define "idea"? Like Solomon said, "There is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
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Re: Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby glorybee » Tue Sep 22, 2015 6:28 pm

CatLin wrote:I'm still confused about plagiarism of of IDEAS. That seems very broad. Can you define "idea"? Like Solomon said, "There is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9)


Cathy, I'm going to toss that one to Steve. Stay tuned--I'll post his response as soon as I get it.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby swfdoc1 » Wed Sep 23, 2015 12:24 am

Jan,

I hope it’s OK to post this directly.

Cat,

One way to think about this in terms of the “common knowledge rule.” Unless an idea (or a fact, for that matter) is “common knowledge,” you must cite SOMETHING in support of it. Now, there may be any number of sources in which you can find that fact or idea—just cite any of them. Remember, Jan is talking about research, so you should have the notes for one or more sources. A decently short explanation of avoiding common knowledge plagiarism is here. One caveat: I think the idea that finding something in 3 to 5 sources makes it common knowledge is on the low side if you are self-publishing.

Another wrinkle to think about it is this: You may have done a lot of research and drawn on a lot of sources but also have done some synthesis of your own. Or you may have come up with an idea on your own, only to later discover that idea already in print. In that case drop a note explaining the situation. In one of my academic papers, I wrote something like, “The following section is based primarily on source A, source B, source C; and secondarily on source D, source E, and source F.” Another time, I wrote something like, “Although the ideas expressed in the following section track ideas contained in source A and source B, this author arrived at these conclusions independently.” A third time I wrote something like, “The following section shows substantial agreement with source A and source B in some ways, but also demonstrates significant differences with them in other ways.” Of course, “source A,” etc. can’t just be citations to entire works (unless that is actually true), but must (generally) contain “pincites” to specific pages/range of pages.

Importantly, the above principles can even apply to opinions. Is the opinion you are stating truly independently yours or have you been influenced by one or more published opinions of others?

The bottom line is that you don’t want to be accused of stealing someone else’s ideas.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby glorybee » Wed Sep 23, 2015 12:48 am

Thanks, Steve. Of course it's fine to post directly!

I've said it before that the contributions of other posters to these threads are just as valuable--sometimes more valuable--than the lessons themselves.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby pheeweed » Sun Sep 27, 2015 6:51 pm

Jan, thanks for your comments. As always, they are helpful. As far as the quotation marks in the text, that's where I'm struggling with the principles of citing sources. I know how John felt because he wrote about it in a letter and the word in quotes are his words.

his “heart began to thump and pound” and he was “downright scared.”

If I drop the quotes, or follow one of your suggestions, does that constitute plagiarism? If I write an introduction explaining the letters as my primary source, does that cover me for the entire book? Oh, the letters are unpublished and will probably never be.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--NONFICTION AND RESEARCH

Postby glorybee » Sun Sep 27, 2015 6:58 pm

pheeweed wrote:Jan, thanks for your comments. As always, they are helpful. As far as the quotation marks in the text, that's where I'm struggling with the principles of citing sources. I know how John felt because he wrote about it in a letter and the word in quotes are his words.

his “heart began to thump and pound” and he was “downright scared.”

If I drop the quotes, or follow one of your suggestions, does that constitute plagiarism? If I write an introduction explaining the letters as my primary source, does that cover me for the entire book? Oh, the letters are unpublished and will probably never be.


I think whether to include the quotes or not depends on whether you're writing this as biography or as creative nonfiction or as historical fiction based on true events--it's sort of a continuum going from more academic and scholarly to less, with a few possible stops between. Without knowing that, I hesitate to say, but it does seem to me that author's notes will explain to your readers what your source materials are. I'm assuming that you've obtained permission from your subject (or from his family), so plagiarism doesn't really seem to be an issue here.
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