On Research: Google Alerts

I don’t think I’ve said it enough. Research is intimidating. Unless you have a day job that allows you to (a) research your subject matter as a part of your daily responsibilities, or (b) makes you an expert in that particular area or subject matter, undertaking the kind of research to write an accurate novel which story has even one element of something you have no experience with, or to write an accurate nonfiction piece at all really is a lot of work. It can be time consuming and frustrating. You may have difficulty even knowing where to begin.

For me, one of the best tools I have found that has been very helpful to me recently is Google Alerts. Yes, of course it comes from Google. Since the company’s primary purpose started out as a search engine, it may come as no surprise that Google Alerts is essentially just another type of “search engine”. You set up an alert based on a keyword term or phrase, and Google will email you links to news articles, blogs, or other online resources that match your search. It is a quick and easy way to start your research as you look for other sources to rely on.

A few pointers from my experience:

1) Be specific – This is a search, plain and simple, and if you are too vague your search is going to turn up a lot. Make sure you know exactly what it is you want to learn about. Try to direct your search term or phrase as narrowly as you possibly can so that your alerts will be applicable to you. Of course, even if you narrow it down well, there are still going to be links that don’t quite hit the nail. For this, Google gives you an option to give feedback in every alert email, allowing you to flag an article as “irrelevant”. That can also help you narrow your criteria.

2) The more recent, the better – What Google Alerts is designed to do is find articles that provide the most recent new information on a subject. Unfortunately for those looking to write historical fiction, this resource is not likely to do you a whole lot of good. Sure, once in a while you may hit on some new diaries of someone or other that have just been discovered or released by the family estate, but for the most part Google Alerts is going to help those of us looking for new information on things that are happening now, or have happened in the very recent past. (Sorry historical fiction writer. I’m still looking for research tips for you guys.)

3) Don’t be afraid to discard – Some of the information you get through these alerts is not going to be useful. That’s just how it goes. Don’t be afraid to toss aside an article or post that isn’t relevant to you. Let’s face it, another intimidating thing about research is that there is so much information out there that we have trouble weeding through it. That’s what Google Alerts is designed to do – help you weed through the masses. Check out the headline, skim through the article, but if it’s not something you can really use, get rid of it.


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Filed under life of a writer, writing

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