You Don’t Have to Take My Word for It

Research

Research (Photo credit: astronomy_blog)

Anybody remember Reading Rainbow with Levar Burton? I watched it when I was a kid, and the line I always recall is, “But you don’t have to take my word for it.” Burton was encouraging kids to read the books he told them about and discover the wonder of their stories themselves.

Nowadays, I think we need to hear more of that, whereas what we seem to get is just the opposite. We’re supposed to believe that whatever we see in a commercial, read on our favorite social network site, or see in a news report is the gospel truth. Because, of course, no one would ever promote false advertising or report something without fact checking first – right?

I was watching the news several years ago when an eager reporter, who was about to fly out on his vacation, had a flight delay. Lucky for the uninformed public, he was the first guy on the scene, ready to tell us exactly what was going down. A bomb, he said. I have no idea where he got his intel, but apparently it didn’t need to be vetted, and suddenly this supposed bomb was headline news. Several hours later, his network sheepishly admitted that the “story” they’d covered all morning was just a reporter getting excited to break some news. No bomb threat. Nothing suspicious at all.

The mainstream media, modern marketing, and your general idiot on the street who doesn’t know what he’s talking about are all eager to spread the word, no matter if it’s true or not.

Some say that with the likes of YouTube and the Internet in general, people will do anything they can to get attention. If you subscribe to a social media site like Facebook, how many pictures do you see every day with someone holding a poster board that says, “My dad will get me a bike if I get 100,000 likes” or “My mom will stop smoking if she gets a million likes”? I could go off on a whole new tangent about this, but my point is that so many people are vying for attention that they’ll say – and consequently believe – anything that garners attention.

Maybe I’m missing something, but I like actual empirical evidence. For instance, I read product reviews. Sometime between my first and second pregnancies, my favorite maternity clothiers decided to vacate the brick and mortar stores and sell almost exclusively online. Now, if it’s hard to find clothes that fit a normal body, that problem is only magnified when you add a pregnant belly to the equation. Many reviews clued me in on the problems with the fit of a dress or shirt, and I steered clear. Others sang the praises of the durability of the fabric of a pair of pants. Still more had both positive and negative reviews, so I had to really think carefully about my buying options.

Hmm. . . Thinking carefully or critically, even. I hope that’s not a foreign concept to you, dear readers, although I’m losing more and more hope for people in general every day.

If you’ve read my personal account of signing on with a scammer agent a few years ago, you’ll know that I can get sucked in, too. One too many rejections can even make the thickest-skinned of us turn stupid. Someone likes my story? Really? I’ve never heard of this agency, but it must be the real deal because they like me!

To make a long story not quite as long, a funny feeling and Google search that reinforced that feeling showed me what I chose not to see when signing the (as it turns out) not-so-quite-legally-binding contract. Now, I always check out prospective agents on Preditors & Editors. But you know what? There’s dirt out there on that site, too. Fortunately, I was able to corroborate Pred & Ed’s lack of trust in my own agent with my personal experience, and other research has given me confidence that it continues to be a good resource.

Recently, I decided to take the plunge into the wheat-free/gluten-free realm. It wasn’t a decision I came to lightly, nor an easy one. It actually came more than a year after I first heard of the idea of dropping wheat specifically. I finally consulted Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, at the same time knowing that a lot of people have negative things to say about it. One blogger (and a gluten-free guy, I might add) posted his refutations to three points that author and doctor William Davis made.

I researched enough references in Wheat Belly to make my head spin, and all that I can figure is that Davis fudged some of his statistics to further convince readers that no wheat is the way to go. I could be like the anti-Wheat Belly blogger and say the whole book is bogus. . . except that I know what he says about diabetes is true because of research that my dad did years ago, when he thought he might be pre-diabetic. I’ve heard anecdotes from people I know who have read the book – including an endorsement from my own doctor – and have read an array of articles by other doctors who point out enough similar evidence to come to my own conclusion: some of Wheat Belly may be merely well-informed opinion and against conventional wisdom, but much of it makes absolute sense. Still, I know many people will think I’m crazy and argue with me about my new lifestyle choice. Just know that I didn’t make this decision because some Hollywood starlet said it would turn me into a supermodel.

There is little that bothers me more than watching or reading something that was not researched properly. What works on the silver screen or in a book doesn’t necessary equal reality. That’s why I so admire those people who go the extra mile and do mounds of research. If you’ve ever read a Michael Crichton book, you’ll know what I mean. Back in the days when I thought that writerly skill could save me from having to do all that work (if it’s good enough, they’ll believe anything, right?), I wrote a story that opened up with a passenger train wreck. And I just assumed that, having taken a trip via Amtrak in the sixth grade, I was an expert. It never occurred to me that I might need to go to the library and look up passenger trains, accidents, policy about what law enforcement does in the clean up and investigation. I thought that if I gave my story a sci-fi twist, I could fudge all that stuff. Please forgive me, I was only thirteen.

How many parts of our lives would be improved if we did due diligence? For one, I know that my husband and I wouldn’t have jumped feet-first into a thirty-year fixed loan on a condo that would lose over sixty percent of its value before you could say “housing market crash.” Maybe people in general wouldn’t fall for as many bad car deals. Maybe we wouldn’t hit “send” too soon, lacing cyberspace with rumors that are difficult to track, even harder to take back.

Shopping for a TV today? Or an agent? Whoever it is doing the selling, you don’t have to take their word for it.

Call Me the Grammar Nazi

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth Presid...

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Opinions differ about who originally said the above maxim. Many think it was Abraham Lincoln, and there’s a slightly different version attributed to Mark Twain. Whoever it was, I think he (or she) would throw his hands up in despair if he saw what’s happening in social media these days. And in this instance, I’m speaking particularly of grammar.

Here’s the thing: a properly spelled and punctuated status update could very well contain nothing but idiocy; however, it appears better informed than a good argument that expresses itself poorly with terrible grammar. The ones that really drive me nuts are the school teachers who post things with really bad (and obvious) spelling errors. And you’re teaching our kids? I think. No wonder everyone complains about American education.

Not only do I take speaking and writing properly as a personal responsibility, but I also consider a thing of pride. And pride goeth before a fall; yes, I know. But I don’t want to be a poor representative of my education or my upbringing. English is my first language; it’s my job to know it.

Maybe I’m taking this a little too seriously. It could be that spelling comes to me naturally or that I have a gift with tongues. I fondly remember our spelling bee games in elementary school, which not only weeded out the bad spellers but prepared those of us who were going on to the real thing. In the fifth grade, the word that stumped me was “souvenir,” and although I spelled it wrong (I think I put an “i” instead of the “e”), I asked for the correct spelling and have known it ever since.

I wonder, though, about the other kids that didn’t make it. When they misspelled whichever words got them out, were they relieved that they didn’t have to do it anymore? Did they shrug it off and never give it another thought? Or did they do what I did and learn the proper spelling?

I know there is probably a certain percent of the population who don’t care one bit but still spell correctly because they’ve unconsciously absorbed and retained the information. So where does that leave the bad spellers who really want to get the words right but can’t ever seem to quite make it? I think that this minority is shrinking and being taken over by the shruggers, the people who think that it doesn’t much matter anyway.

Those of us who call ourselves writers should know better. More than that, we should do better. Especially considering the ease with which our words make it into one form of media or another, we should set ourselves apart by making our prose as clean and intelligible as possible.

I know of some famous authors who, without the aid of excellent editors, could never spell their way out of a paper bag. And I suppose I can believe that a bestselling author does not a good speller make. After all, there was a time before writing, when traditions were kept orally, through storytelling. There must have been countless storytellers in our world’s history who never needed to know teem and team are spelled differently.

On the other hand, this should not be a cop out. We do have a system of writing now, proper sentence structures and various forms of punctuation that have developed over the centuries as it became more common for people to read, and reading material became more accessible.

From road signs to advertisements, from books to newspapers, Internet columns to menus to instruction manuals. . . and the plethora of other ways we use words to get meanings across to others, I’m here to say it does matter. And no, I’m not going to pass by a restaurant for advertising “from scratch pizza’s” (I’ll pass by for dietary reasons instead), but I’ll be embarrassed for the person that created the menus. . . and even more embarrassed for the majority of the patrons who simply don’t notice. But as someone who reads cover letters on an almost daily basis, I always mentally move a candidate down a notch when he says he hopes his writing exceeds expectations, and the first sentence greets me with a big ol’ typo.

What in the world is the solution? Education is a big part. Caring is another, and I’m not quite sure how to make people care. In a culture where idiocy is applauded and can make you famous (just visit YouTube, and you’ll see what I mean), it’s a tough fight.

But while I’m preaching and feeling pessimistic, there is someone out there who put a little bit of a humorous spin on the whole “Grammar Nazi” thing. So check it out Why It’s Hard Being a Grammar Nazi, have a laugh, and then use a dictionary the next time you’re even the tiniest bit unsure about how to spell the plural of “hero.”