"Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There's no better rule," Charles Dickens wrote in Great Expectations over a century ago, and it's still true.
Just as we wouldn't try to prove a court case without presenting evidence to back up our claims, likewise in our writing, we need facts and testimony by reliable witnesses to convince the reader that what we say is true. Yet too many of us are like the prosecuting attorney who tries to send a man to jail by simply saying that he's a killer.
In reading student writings, I find myself constantly asking for details--for more evidence. "How do you know this?" I ask. "You say she's a prize-winning artist, but what prizes has she won?" "You say he's grouchy and sarcastic. Can you give me any examples?" "It says here, 'He's highly educated.' What colleges did he attend and what degrees did he earn?"
The fuzzier the picture, the less I believe you. Give me evidence. Prove your case.
In any kind of nonfiction, the writer needs to prove to the reader that 1) This is an important article that you should read and 2) You can trust what I say.
Present reasons why the reader should care about this story. In a profile, list what the person has done that makes him worthy of note. In a how-to, tell us why learning this new technique will enhance our lives. What good things have happened to other people who tried it?
If an editorial writer wants to convince his readers that the military draft should be reinstated, he needs to present some background on what the draft is and how it was used in the past, then give us some good reasons why we need it again. Just stating his opinion is not going to convince anyone, but with the right combination of facts, quotes, and anecdotes, readers might be willing to consider his position.
Likewise in writing a review, the writer can't just say the book was wonderful or terrible. We need to know why she thinks so. What aspects of the book make it good or bad? How does it compare with other works in the same genre?
If you write that the economy is getting better, give us some numbers and some quotes from experts. If you write that there are "dozens of fun things to do in Puerto Vallarta," tell us what they are. And, like the old comedy routine, if you say it was hot, the reader wants to know, "How hot was it?"
In journalism classes, reporters are taught to back up the facts in their stories with quotes from at least three different sources. The rule of three works for all types of writing. Give me three reasons why I should believe you. Be specific. Name your sources, tell us where and when the article you quote was published, explain how you found that great trail through the woods, so that we can find the same information ourselves if we want to.
Evidence is just as important in fiction as in nonfiction. Again, you need to convince the reader that this is a story worth reading and that the reader can trust that your imaginary tale will unfold logically, with enough details to make us believe in your depiction of the real world or the fantasy world that you create.
"You must inspire the reader with the confidence that you know the fascinating inside story, that you're not just faking it," writes Philip Gerard in Writing a Book That Makes a Difference. "Even in a novel, your world has to be so convincingly grounded in the facts and feelings of the real world that the reader doesn't doubt it for an instant."
A student writes: "She was an attractive, mature woman." This does not tell me what she looks like. I get a blurry picture of sorts, but I need more information. What specifically makes her attractive? "Oh," says the student, "in my mind, she has short white hair, a nice slim figure, and she always wears these expensive tailored suits." The picture is getting clearer. "And there's something about the way she walks: She always holds herself so tall and proud." The woman just snapped into focus.
Don't just write "he was an evil man." Evil how? What did he do that was so bad? I need more than hearsay; I need to see him being bad. If he kills the cat, abuses the child and robs the old lady without a hint of guilt, now I believe you.
Just saying the truck driver killed the girl in the mystery novel doesn't prove it to me. Show me how you reached that conclusion so that I can come away satisfied that we have indeed solved the case.
Just like an attorney, the writer gathers evidence from observation, research, and interviews--detective work.
Your own observations may yield the most convincing evidence. Use all of your senses to show us what you have discovered. What time of day was it? Was it dark or light, raining or sunny? What did you see? Did you see mountains, beaches, tennis courts? A room? What color? What kind of furniture was in it? Were there books, toys, cats, or shoes scattered around? What did you hear? Was there music playing, water running, children chattering?
Picture how a dog sniffs the air. What did you smell? Cookies baking? Potpourri? Air freshener? Dirty socks? Apply your sense of touch. Was the chair you were sitting on hard or soft, smooth or scratchy? When you shook hands coming in, were the other person's fingers warm or cold, strong or limp? Even taste can apply. Did you have coffee or wine, an Oreo cookie or fresh plums? All of your observations are evidence that will help take the reader into the scene with you.
Research is an important source of evidence. By making use of written information, you can gather statistics and facts, as well as quotes and anecdotes to back up your opinions, theories and observations.
You can answer a lot of questions by searching the Internet, but don't overlook the possibilities beyond your office. Visit the library. Ask the reference librarian to help you find relevant brochures, books, databases and directories. Check the Encyclopedia of Associations, Who's Who and other references. Even the telephone directory can yield helpful information.
If you're writing fiction, you will be inventing the story, but you're still going to want to know whether there would be redwood trees or Sitka spruce in the forest where your lovers meet, whether the farmer is raising Guernseys or Holsteins, and whether skirts in that era were above the knee or below. Find the evidence to prove that your story is really happening in the time and place where it is set.
If you give your character a broken ankle, and you have never had one, you need to find out what it's like. You can't just have the character limp a little. You could look up "broken ankle" in a medical encyclopedia, but your story will be more authentic if you talk to someone who has had a broken ankle or a doctor who has treated one.
Even if you are an expert in your subject, it will make your article stronger if you collect testimony from other sources to back up your statements. In fiction, you need details from real life to make your story believable. If you have the crab fisherman going out in May or filling his hold without checking the size and gender of each crab, savvy readers will know that you have no idea what crabbing is all about. Interviewing a real-life crab fisherman will keep you from making innocent blunders that rip the reader out of the story--getting your case thrown out of court.
Most people love to talk about their work and their lives. If you call and explain what you need, they will nearly always agree to an interview. Come armed with questions and press for specifics. If they say they enjoy cooking seafood, ask whether they favor salmon, crab or lobster? Do they bake, sauté or fry it? A young man carries his grandfather's Purple Heart medal from World War II in his wallet. How did his grandfather earn the Purple Heart and how did the grandson come to own it? Why is it so important that he carries it around wherever he goes? Never be afraid to ask for more information. The question not asked is the one that will get you in trouble.
Finding the evidence you need may require detective work, but it's worth the effort to present an air-tight case. Go poke around the scene, be nosy, ask questions, write down your observations. If anyone asks, tell them you're a writer trying to get the details just right. They will appreciate your quest for accuracy.
Without evidence, your stories will be like the legal case with nothing to back it up. Your sentences may be smooth, your spelling perfect, your paragraphs well-formed and logical, but if you have no details to support your general statements, the reader will snap the book shut with a bang, just like the judge hammering his gavel. Case dismissed. However, if you fill your story with enough evidence to convince even the most doubting reader, then the verdict will be: "We find in favor of the author."
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