Doing research the old fashioned way

Credit: Anna Langova

Bob Bly has a great article in the Jan/Feb, 2015 issue of Target Marketing on using “old school” methods when researching a writing assignment. Mr. Bly writes mainly about doing research for writing copy for ads, fund-raising letters, and such, but his suggestions are well taken for any kind of writing.

At first blush, some readers may be surprised that copywriters need to do research. Yes, at its most fundamental level, research is just discovering what has already been written about a topic. No need to reinvent the wheel, but also no need to restate something that has already been stated, perhaps in a clearer and more concise manner.

The part of Bly’s article that piqued my interest was his admonition to do some research the old fashioned way, by actively reading print copies, browsing library stacks, or just thumbing through magazines at hand. Often, you will find gems of wisdom – and a treasure trove of ideas – seemingly by accident. For example, I was recently flipping through a volume of essays by Wendell Berry (one of my favorite commentators on man’s place in the world) and I came across an essay on the life of Nate Shaw, a quite remarkable man of integrity and uncommon wisdom. From that essay, I gleaned several good ideas, which produced thoughts that were later developed into points in a college lecture I gave on making good economic choices.

If I had not carved out time to do some “leisurely” reading, I would never have come across this material and my lecture would have been lacking. Writing, lecturing, or speaking of any sort, is intellectual work and must be built with intellectual material. Acquiring that material takes time and effort but it is well worth the effort. As a writer or speaker you are not wasting time browsing through libraries, bookstores, or the stack of magazines by your chair. The logger must fell some trees before the miller can saw them into lumber and the builder can build the house. As a producer of intellectual work you must be the logger, miller, and builder – which is sometimes exhausting but worth it if it is a labor of love.

NOTE: You can read Bob Bly’s original article HERE.
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Who Says? It pays to check sources.

Abe Lincoln Internet


I enjoy reading Denny Hatch’s Blog, a regular feature of Target Marketing Magazine, a respected trade magazine in the direct marketing industry. Denny is pointed, direct, insightful, and sometimes irreverent but most of the time he is “spot on.” Granted, he is somewhat of a curmudgeon, but curmudgeonly advice is sometimes the most profitable.

In his January 2015 article he decries the lack of persnickety fact checking found in all kinds of written work. He singles out Wikipedia as a frequent source of misguided information but is harder on the lazy writer who quotes Wikipedia and other sources without checking the facts.

Frequently, I remind my students of the importance of not plagiarizing. In a day when information can be sourced so easily on the Internet it is tempting to copy and paste an assignment.

However, there is a world of difference between sourcing information and creating content. Creating content involves sifting through information, discerning what is good, better, best, or not worthwhile at all, and then bringing it together in a coherent, convincing piece of prose. Copy and paste is a commodity (and moral hazard), but creativity is a specialized good. More value will always be found with intelligence and creativity.

If you would like to read Denny’s original article, you can find it HERE. He gives some great advice but is also a gifted wordsmith. Just remember, when reading a work with quotes or other source attribution, it pays to check it out. With the reader, like the consumer, caveat emptor is an apt warning.

It’s like Abraham Lincoln once said, “you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

Greg L. Lowhorn