Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Dangers of “Personal Knowledge”

When I do school visits, I often ask students where they get reliable information when they’re writing nonfiction. What kinds of sources do they use?

Of course, they mention books and using the Internet cautiously. Some mention encyclopedic databases, such as PebbleGo.

With a little bit of prodding, they’ll often realize that firsthand observations can be a good source if they’re writing about a local animal, and interviews with experts can enrich a nonfiction report or project about just about any topic.

But at some schools, students include “personal knowledge” on their list. And that worries me. A lot.

Personal knowledge is NOT a reliable resource. All of us carry misinformation and misconceptions with us. And some of the things we learned in the past may no longer be considered true. Our collective understanding of the world is changing all the time. Simply put, we don’t know what we don’t know.

That’s why nonfiction writers need to question everything.

We need to “read around” our topics, gathering a wide range of background information.  We’ll probably never use some of it, but it’s critical to have a broad base of general knowledge before diving into specifics. If we don’t, mistakes can happen.

And after the piece is written, we need to double check everything. And I mean everything. Because we can’t rely on what we think we know. We have to be sure.

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