In The Field

Along with visits to the library, make time for direct investigation in the field. Don't hesitate to get involved by visiting important sites, interviewing people, and surveying opinion.

Direct Observation

Though not all subjects lend themselves to direct observation, many do. If you're writing about competition in co-ed in junior high school physical education classes, for instance, you might arrange to visit a few such classes. Watch, listen, take notes on your observations. Perhaps use a handheld recorder. You might want to attend a few such classes at different grade levels and at different schools. Then you could visit some all-boys' or all-girls' classes for comparison. Then when you've finished, spend some time writing reflectively on what you noticed.

Of course, you'll need to talk to the teacher beforehand to get permission and discuss how you can observe without interfering. But this could be a good time to ask the teacher for an interview. Maybe you could also interview a few students to get their perspectives on coed physical education.

Interviews

Your younger sister might be an expert on video games. Your father might be an expert on baking bread. A real estate agent could give you information on recent trends in home prices. A horse breeder could describe modern branding techniques. A stock broker could explain margin buying. Experts are all around us--in all ages, genders, and races--and most will be eager to share their knowledge if you approach them courteously and with a genuine display of interest.

Before interviewing an expert, however, you should prepare by clarifying what you're looking for. Do some preliminary exploration of your subject with freewriting, the journalists' questions, and the other probing techniques. Focus your concerns into master questions and sub-questions. Compile a list of topics you want to cover. Make an appointment, and tell the expert that you need the information for a writing project. Ask if you may tape the interview. Make clear that you'll give the expert credit in the final essay. Offer to give the expert a copy. In short, be serious and professional in your approach. If you are, you'll be amazed at how much information you can gather.

You might also consider giving a written interview, a short list of pertinent questions to which the interviewee can respond briefly in writing. Somewhere between a traditional interview and a survey, a written interview assures that you get exact quotes and can even be conducted by email.

Activity

8.5 Locate an expert on one of the following subjects, or use a subject you're currently interested in writing about, and set up an interview. Before going, do some homework on the subject and arrive with a list of questions.

Afterward, write up a short report telling how the experience went: what you wanted to learn, what difficulties you experienced, what you did learn, and how the information might be useful. Possible subjects: homeopathic medicine, self-defense, home insulation, co-dependency, credit ratings, impressionist painting.

Surveys

Like written interviews, surveys ask people to put their ideas in writing, but surveys are distributed to groups and are generally more highly structured. Surveys look for patterned responses in order to gauge public opinion.

Making up, administering, and tabulating a survey can be quite rewarding. To return to the Physical Education example, you could survey all P.E. teachers in a school system, all students in all classes you observe. Then you could compare the students' responses with the teachers'. Or you could compare responses from the coed classes with responses from the all boys' and all girls' classes.

Again, you would want to clear this with the teacher. The two of you might go over the questions beforehand to help refine and structure your list.