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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Research on the Street

Solid writing requires research. Don’t groan. Research doesn’t have to sterile and boring. It can be interesting, adventurous and even a little dangerous.

I admit that surfing the Internet or digging stuff out of old books and documents in the library may bore you. However, what I like to call street-level research is exciting.

Interview the leader of a street gang, and see if you are bored. Interview someone who has just lost their job or been disgraced, and I'll bet you won't be bored.

Change the rules of the game and you create a natural experiment. Experiments provide some of the most powerful research results a writer could hope for. If the government taxes factory emissions, what will happen? Will you get fewer emissions? Or fewer factories?

If you lower the drinking age, what happens to the traffic accident rate? If you take drivers older than 80-years-old off the road, what happens to the accident rate? If the unemployment rate goes up, what happens to number of people volunteering for military service. Does a recession cause more people to sign up for Social Security at age 62?

The 2010 Yellow Pages just arrived, and I discovered that it is 88 pages shorter than last year’s directory. What happened? A little investigation suggested that a severe recession was the culprit.

I checked a few directory categories to see how they had changed. Fewer building contractors and real estate agents bought display ads for 2010, and many of the ads bought were smaller. The directory listed fewer specialty retailers and restaurants than in 2009. The ads for bankruptcy attorneys, on the other hand, were more numerous and larger.

Opportunities abound to improve your writing through research. Just don’t rely on the formal research methods alone. Get your hands dirty with street-level investigation as well.

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