Incorporating Field Research into Writing Instruction

Writing Instruction

Adapted from Teaching Nonfiction Revision by Sneed B. Collard III,  and Vicki Spandel

Inexperienced writers often consider research a waste of time. Rather than reading books, watching a documentary, or talking to an expert, they prefer to dive into writing like a penguin chasing a sardine. The problem with this approach is that a writer may dash off a rousing first paragraph only to find she doesn't know enough about her topic to add even one more good line. Thoroughly investigating a topic can solve this problem — and do much, much more. 

Carefully researching a topic also helps the writer:

  • discover important questions to answer in the manuscript
  • uncover the most interesting facts, quotes, and events to share
  • make personal observations or have experiences that can dramatically enrich the text
  • become enough of an expert to write with a compelling voice

Research is so important that it plays a key role both before writing begins and during the revision process. That’s why we also include it as one of our revision strategies. Even before you have your students begin writing, it’s important to encourage them to do as much research as possible. The best way to do that is to show them just how much fun the process can be.

Nowadays, students and adults alike equate research with getting on the Internet or, we all hope, checking out books from the library. Internet research, however, has inherent problems. One is that no one checks most information on the Internet to make sure it’s true. Government websites tend to be pretty good, and I love Wikipedia, but it is only as good as the people who happen to work on individual subjects – and they do so with very little oversight. Most other websites are not checked at all. They teem with incorrect data, hearsay, and opinion masquerading as fact. Students don’t know that, of course, so you have to tell them. Have them find out who created a website they wish to use for research. If it’s an expert or group with an established reputation in a particular field, chances are that it will be trustworthy. If, on the other hand, it’s an advocacy group, and enthusiastic amateur, a company trying to sell something, or a political party – in other words, most websites – advise them to steer clear.

The greatest problem with Internet research may be the least obvious: it robs writers of the genuine joy of discovery

Recently, in eastern Montana, I taught a week-long writing camp for underserved youth. After focusing on the writing process for a couple of days, one afternoon I led my students, armed with notebooks and cameras, on a field trip. Our first stop: a small-town art museum that had been created from an old waterworks building. Next, we visited one of the town cemeteries.

“Look all around you,” I instructed them. “Notice what you see, how you feel, the different senses you experience. Whenever you notice or see something that may be useful in your own writing, jot it down in your notebook or take a picture of it.”

The students ate it up. They raced around both venues scribbling notes, taking photos, and reading art descriptions and gravestones.

The next day, I led them in two different writing exercises. First, I projected pictures of some of the museum artworks and asked the students to write a story that was inspired by each image. Then, I had them craft a compelling narrative using their notes and photos from the cemetery. Here is a first draft from one of the students:

Hundreds of gravestones lined the cemetery, cut from the same stone and arranged uniformly, a testament to the uniform lives of the soldiers that lay beneath them. Though at one time the white marble pillars had been arranged neatly, they now leaned every which way, like a set of teeth badly in need of orthodontia. Unlike the gravestones in the rest of the cemetery, no flowers graced these; they had been forgotten. Instead of individual people, the stones now represented the tolls of war on mankind – not fame, glory, nor the immortality of memory, but death, cold and absolute. 

These two writing exercises turned out to be the most successful of the entire week. Equipped with their own observations and perspectives, students forged pieces brimming with insight and passion, and often touched on the profound. The quality of their writing leaped, too. Why? Because they were writing from their own research, inspiration, and choice.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

To learn more about Teaching Nonfiction Revision and download a sample chapter, visit Heinemann.com.


Sneed B Collard III Author photographOne of today’s favorite nonfiction children’s authors, Sneed B. Collard III has written more than 80  books, ranging from captivating picture books to middle-grade novels to award-winning science books. He is the 2006 recipient of the Washington Post Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award for his body of work. To learn more about Sneed, his books, and speaking activities, visit www.sneedbcollardiii.com.

Vicki Spandel has spent her professional life working with students and teachers of writing—as a classroom instructor, online writing coach, journalist, editor, technical writer, and curriculum developer. She is the author of multiple books on writing, including Creating Writers, Creating Young Writers, and The 9 Rights of Every Writer. Visit Vicki online at http://sixtraitgurus.wordpress.com to see writing lessons based on contemporary literature.

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