More questions. More help. Introducing Mastering Table Topics Second Edition.

How to Be a Writer: Lesson 1 – Develop Intellectual Curiosity

htbaw1Intellectual curiosity is the most important skill you can develop as a writer. When you dig for the truth, you’ll uncover information that will make your writing more informative and interesting. You can challenge established (but untrue) assumptions. People will want to read your work because they can learn something new and see things differently. Intellectual curiosity will make you a better writer — and a better person overall.

Intellectual curiosity helps your writing in the following ways:

  • Uncovers details that improve your content. The serendipitous discoveries you make in your research can add life and depth to your writing. When I went to Reseda High School to do research for The Ghosts of Reseda High, I noticed a pine tree that leaned at an angle. Months later, I went to Freiburg, Germany where I noticed another pine tree that leaned at an angle. I saw a connection between those two trees that became an important symbol in my story.
  • Improves accuracy. This is essential for non-fiction, but it is also important for fiction. Although facts must be consistent within the world of the story, glaring factual errors can throw off the audience. Django Unchained may be one of Quentin Tarantino’s historical fantasies, but anachronisms like Django’s sunglasses proved to be distractions.
  • Prevents lazy writing. Stereotypes, cliches, and overused tropes are perpetuated because of a lack of research. Consider the staple of most action movies, the scene where the heroes calmly strut away from an explosion. In a real explosion, those heroes wouldn’t survive the shock wave and flying shrapnel. By doing research, you can come up with an original and credible alternative to tired tropes (while avoiding embarrassing inaccuracies like nuking the fridge.)

To exercise your intellectual curiosity, you need to become an effective researcher. This is where the lessons you learned in history class about primary and secondary sources become useful. Secondary sources are a good starting point and help you understand enough about the subject to prepare your research. However, most of your research should come from primary sources. These give you the most useful information, and they offer a direct and personal connection with the subject.

Here are some tips to help you use primary sources more effectively:

  • Get first-hand experience. If possible, go to the place that you are writing about, interview the people who lived through the experience, and view artifacts and original documents. This will make the information more real and personal for you, and your experience will give you fresh insights.
  • Ask questions effectively. To get the right answers, you have to ask the right questions. Use the background information you gathered from secondary sources to form your questions. Make sure your questions are open-ended and use follow-ups to get more details.
  • Get background information about related fields. Don’t just focus on the item you are researching. Find out about related information that provides context for the facts you’ve gathered. If you’re writing about a soldier in World War II, find out about the popular entertainment of the time, the types of food he ate and how it was prepared, and what type of clothes he wore back home. These details can present a more complete picture of your subject.
  • Take good notes. Capture as much information you can, especially quotes. Get the correct spelling of names. Don’t forget to get contact information of the people you interview, including phone numbers and email addresses. After your interview, write down any other observations you made while they’re still fresh in your mind. Then, file your notes so they are easy for you to find and refer to later.
  • Use photographs to capture information. Photographs can provide a good reference and help you remember anything you didn’t write down. The camera on your smartphone is good enough to take reference photos. If you plan to use the photos for publication, use a professional quality camera and get the permission of people who appear in your photos.

Developing intellectual curiosity will help you become a better writer. You’ll gather details and discover insights that will make your content more informative and interesting. To gather this detail, you need to become a keen observer, which I’ll cover in the next lesson. Good luck with your writing!