Wading Through Source Material

When you are writing nonfiction, you often need to use others’ material. Depending on the type of book, quotations from another author can provide an expert’s view that buttresses a point you are making. The more academic or technical the writing, the more you need to show that your work acknowledges the contributions of others. If you don’t back up what you say, you run the risk of a reader assuming that you are not presenting facts, but only your opinion.

This imperative can be taken too far, however. Hunting for and gathering source material is meant to apply only to the first phase, when you are collecting a mine from which you can draw. When you sit down to write, hunting and gathering can lead to results as primitive as the stone age practice. In a much later era, with the advent of roads, we invented the sign post. For our purposes here, you can consider those signs posts as guides to the reader as to where the book is heading next. 

For practical purposes, let’s focus on a single book: a narrative about a homicide committed by a gang of moonshiners. All you have are historical records: testimony in the court cases, court records of various hearings and grand jury proceedings, newspaper accounts, and perhaps a diary of one of the felons. From these sources you can patch together a fairly cohesive chronological record of what led up to the murder and what came after. Yet each piece of source material was not written to fit within an overall whole. You have to link them with your sign posts.  

Sometimes you need a topic paragraph to provide an effective change in direction. At other times, when the source material follows a clear pattern, you need merely a sentence. If you are switching, for instance, between an arrest after a still is discovered by police to another occasion entirely where a potential witness was browbeaten, you’re probably going to provide a paragraph bridge in order to make the transition. If you are switching, though, merely between a grand jury finding and paying the subsequent bail levied by the judge, a sentence will probably suffice.

Beyond simple direction pointing, source material can become balky when you are employing long stretches of it. In this book, the likely culprits would be snatches of trial transcripts. If you use two pages of testimony by witness A and then three pages by witness B, etc., the reader may start to feel in over his head. Oral testimony often segues onto tangents, despite a lawyer’s attempts to keep the witness on track. When enough of that occurs, anyone reading may become exasperated that he has to wade through trivia.

A solid means of supplying more direction is breaking up the transcript into smaller pieces. You can take a section and paraphrase it in a narrative paragraph. While you’re at it, you can add in extra directions as to where the testimony that precedes or follows the paragraph is headed in general. That way you can corral your source material and bend it to a purpose that will please your readers.

“To be a book-collector is to combine the worst characteristics of a dope fiend with those of a miser.” —Robertson Davies

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.