An open letter to my eleventh grade English teacher.
Dear Ms. Bates,
I know we haven't spoken in many years. Well, okay, so we haven't spoken since I finished my exam in your class in June 1985, but that doesn't mean I've forgotten you. I know we had our differences, and that you felt I never properly appreciated the brilliance of Henry David Thoreau or the horror of the comma splice. (Still a problem for me, actually). But I do want to apologize for mocking the "I Brake for Whales" bumper sticker on your ancient Saab convertible by asking if your other car was a submarine.
Still, all of that was a long time ago and I'm not writing to talk whales or rake up old differences about symbolism and the subtext of the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan's dock in The Great Gatsby. I'm writing because I thought of you today when one of my colleagues sent me a rough draft of an article to review. It was chock full of great statistics and wonderful quotes. The writing was lively and engaging. I loved it right up until the moment I asked to see the sourced copy.
"Sourced?" The email reply came back to my request. "What do you mean 'sourced'?"
"Footnotes," I wrote back. "Can I see the copy with the footnotes of where you got all of this great information? Dates of interviews? Names of publications?"
"Oh," came the answer, "I didn't footnote anything. Is that a problem?"
Is that a problem? And that's when I thought of you, Ms. Bates, and my research paper on Carl Sandburg that you savaged because it lacked proper documentation. It's a lesson I've never forgotten. Just as I've never forgotten the remarks scrawled on the back page in your signature lavender ink:
A for subject matter selection, focus, thesis, writing (particularly good use of the semi-colon)
F for support and documentation. How do I know you didn't make all of this up?
Average grade: C
Ouch. A "C." In English. It was a painful lesson, but I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that I've been a born-again footnoter ever since. It has saved me more than one or two awkward moments.
Since I couldn't give my colleague an F (well, I couldn't give her one to her face), I emailed back, "How do I know you didn't make all of this up? More importantly, how does the reader know?"
Now, her argument back to me was (a) of course she wouldn't make something up and (b) that -- like a newspaper or magazine -- our organization doesn't publish footnoted articles.
True. But that doesn't mean she shouldn't have a sourced copy in her file. Just as you asked me how I knew Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg detested each other and wrangled over the legacy of Abraham Lincoln with dueling biographies, I wondered how my colleague knew what percentage of native tallgrass prairie was left in the United States. She'd cited a statistic, but without knowing her source, I couldn't be sure her statistic was accurate. More importantly, I couldn't look it up for myself.
It seems like a small thing, I know, but accurately sourcing a document (yes, even in marketing writing) is important for credibility and quality control. For a non-profit (or any organization, really), our readers are trusting us to tell them the truth. If we haven't verified and documented our sources, we're running a risk of damaging that trust.
So -- and I'm sure this will make you happy -- I wrote up a little sourcing cheat sheet for her. Just like the one you tucked in my Carl Sandburg paper. Now, I'm not the same stickler for MLA standards that you were (I still can never remember if the copyright date goes inside the paretheses or not), but I think my process serves. It's the same one I use when writing for magazines or my regular staff writing gig.
Oh, I didn't mention that, did I? You were right that chemistry was going to derail my dreams of being a marine biologist, but I did end up making my living as a working writer. (And yes, before you ask, I still have to look up effect/affect every damn time, but that's another blog post).
Back to sourcing. My basic rule of thumb: Keep your source notes specific enough so that someone (like, say, an editor or a fact-checker or a cranky teacher or a long-suffering senior writer) can find the same information without having to consult you (and therefore, will not give you a C in English or use you as fodder for a blog post).
- For publications, studies, press releases, reports, articles, etc., include title, author, publication name, publication date, and appropriate page numbers and place of publication. (If it's a press release, include the name of the issuing organization -- university, think tank, government agency, etc -- and the contact name on the release).
- For Web sites, include specific URL and take a screen shot to save to your research file. There's nothing worse than using a Web source and then going back later to find that the page you need has disappeared. (And please, please, please make sure your Web source is reputable. Shocking, I know, but not everything you read on the Web is true. And if you use Wikipedia, please verify with at least two other independent sources or check the footnotes in Wikipedia for yourself to verify accuracy. With apologies and respect to all the contributors, Wikipedia is a great quick source, but it can potentially get you in serious trouble.)
- For interviews, record the time and place of the interview (was it over the phone or in-person?), names and titles of interviewees, contact information, including phone number, email, mailing address as available. If you can record the interview, that's great, but not always possible. Keep your original notes and your transcripts. (I have a box of old Moleskines full of field notes).
- If you get information in more informal conversation with field staff or other experts, make a note of the person's name and title as well as the time, date, and location of the conversation. (Sometimes quick conversations will give you just the detail you need to make a story. I once had a preserve manager mention in passing that one of his volunteers pollinated eastern prairie fringed orchids with a toothpick. What a great detail. I jotted it down and stuck it in my field notebook with a source note. I forgot about it until I went back through my notes to revise my article. Finding it was like finding gold for my story. Since I had the name of the scientist who'd told me the story and the date he'd told me, I felt confident using it in my article).
I know this lacks the elegance of proper footnotes with italics and underlines, but what my system lacks in beauty, I like to think it makes up for in efficiency.
So, thanks for the footnote lesson, Ms. Bates. I hope you're pleased to know that something you tried to teach me really did stick. I also hope you're still fighting the good fight with the latest generation of writing miscreants and that somewhere in some highschool, you're still drilling your students on Latin roots, correcting their papers without mercy, and telling that joke about the sadist and the masochist trapped together on a desert island.