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Super Searcher, Author, Scribe
Successful Writers Share Their Internet Research Secrets
By Loraine Page, Reva Basch
Information Today, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Loraine Page
All rights reserved.
Medical Writer and Internet Devotee
Sarah Wernick is a freelance writer with a Ph.D. in sociology and a repetitive strain injury in her right hand from spending way too much time online. In a previous life, Sarah taught sociology at, among other places, Washington University and Northeastern University. She abandoned academia in 1978 to write professionally, starting with articles in a local tabloid throwaway and eventually graduating to Woman's Day, Working Mother, Smithsonian, the NewYork Times, and other national publications. She's served as contributing editor at Working Mother and Chocolate News. Among her article awards is the 1997 American Medical Association President's Prize for excellence in tobacco reporting for "The Silent Killer," published in Ladies' Home Journal. This was the first feature article about lung cancer to appear in a major women's magazine.
These days, Sarah focuses on writing books. She's currently finishing Lung Cancer: Myths, Facts, Choices — and Hope for Norton, co-authored with Claudia Henschke, M.D., of Cornell University and Peggy McCarthy, founder of the Alliance for Lung Cancer Advocacy, Support, and Education. Previous projects include three bestsellers about strength training for mature women, all written with Miriam Nelson of Tufts University: Strong Women Stay Young (Bantam, 1997 and 2000), Strong Women Stay Slim (Bantam, 1998), and Strong Women, Strong Bones (Putnam, 2000), which was a Books for a Better Life award winner in 2000. Sarah's other co-authored book, The Emotional Problems of Normal Children (Bantam, 1994), a collaboration with Stanley Turecki, M.D., was honored by Child magazine as one of the best parenting books of 1994.
Sarah is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Authors Guild, and the National Writers Union. She's based in the Boston area of Massachusetts and can be enticed to leave her computer by chocolate or opportunities to speak on book proposals, collaborative writing, and Internet research.
What part has online research played in your writing, both books and articles?
I use the Internet constantly, not only for research but also for connecting with colleagues, reaching people to interview, marketing my work, shopping, not to mention goofing off. At this point, I no longer remember how I worked before I was online. When a nonfiction writer tells me, "Oh yeah, the Internet is pretty good, but I don't find it all that useful," I figure this person hasn't yet discovered what's out there.
There's never been a resource like this in the history of the world. Every major institution — governments, businesses, universities, libraries, museums, organizations, newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio stations — has an online presence, often with extensive information. On top of that, hundreds of thousands of individuals share their expertise with extraordinary generosity. The best library in the world can't compare, not only because the Internet is so much larger, but also because it's so readily searched. And everything is instantly available, right at your desk, any time of day or night.
How did you get started?
In 1983 I bought a Kaypro computer. The operating system came with twenty-five mimeographed pages of unintelligible nerd-speak. In desperation, I joined the Boston Computer Society's Kaypro User Group, which had a terrific online forum. When we ran into trouble, we could crank up our modems, dial in, and get advice. I still remember one frantic message from an unfortunate journalist on deadline: "Help!!! I just ran the spellcheck program, and it turned my article into an alphabetized list of words."
In the early 1990s, I joined CompuServe and started using its resources for article research. For example, I was asked to write an article for Woman's Day about mothers who were secretly disappointed in their child. Normally I'd interview friends or mothers I met at my children's school. But how could I walk up to a woman and ask, "Hey, are you bummed out because your kid is a loser?" I left a tactfully worded message on a CompuServe parenting forum and several members offered to speak with me.
During this period, I was writing a monthly health news column for Working Mother magazine. Practically all my leads came from CompuServe's Executive News Service, which screens major wire services and press releases for stories containing any keywords you specify.
These days I use the Internet rather than CompuServe; they've dropped most of their research services and their forums have shrunk. However, Executive News Service is still very valuable for keeping up with news of interest. I often get word on new studies before my expert co-authors spot them in medical journals.
Where did you turn for information about lung cancer?
The best starting point for online research on lung cancer is a remarkable Web site called Lung Cancer Online [151, see Appendix], set up by a patient. Karen Parles, who's a professional research librarian, was diagnosed three years ago at age thirty-eight. She provides a terrific collection of links to authoritative information, beautifully organized and clearly annotated. Doctors use it too.
For background information, I've tapped general medical resources like Medscape , which provides access to Medline's vast store of medical citations and abstracts, and the Merck Manual Home Edition, the full text of which is online . I've also relied on cancer-specific sources, such as the National Cancer Institute , Oncolink from the University of Pennsylvania , the American Cancer Society , the Association for Cancer Online Resources , which has superb patient discussion groups, and CancerBACUP  in the U.K., which I probably never would have seen without the Internet. They have wonderful resources, such as a compassionate booklet for parents with cancer called What Do I Tell the Children?
Steve Dunn's Cancer Guide  is another outstanding patient site. Steve was diagnosed with advanced kidney cancer in 1989. He saved his life by researching his disease and finding a new treatment, which was then in clinical trials. He offers excellent how-to advice about online medical research plus savvy suggestions for people interested in joining clinical trials.
Can you really rely on medical information from patients? That seems risky.
Good patient sites carefully avoid giving specific medical advice. They link to reliable resources; they urge readers to talk with their doctor. Patients are often the best source for nitty-gritty practical suggestions. If I want tips on coping with hair loss during chemotherapy, I'm not going to find them in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Much of what's available online comes from the same trustworthy sources I'd use at the Harvard Medical School Library. Of course, there's also a lot of crap out there. You have to consider the source and use common sense. But that's true of medical information in any medium. I'm annoyed by dire warnings — usually from people who haven't a clue about all the great stuff online — implying that the Internet is uniquely unreliable. Apparently these folks have never watched an infomercial or read the claims on supplement labels in a health food store.
When I was researching the lung cancer book, I came across sites with testimonials for various "cures," such as an herbal brew whose recipe was given to a Canadian nurse by an ancient Indian medicine man. In the book, we suggest that readers talk to their doctor about claims like this or check them out on Quack Watch , a health-related anti-scam site.
What's your favorite search engine — the one you go to instinctively?
I don't go to one search engine instinctively; I go to the one that seems best suited to the particular search I'm doing. This is something I've learned — and that I'm still learning — by lots of practice.
The search engine I use most is Google . Another good one is FAST , but I have a Google toolbar, available free from their Web site, installed in my browser, so I'm always ready to run a Google search. Google is best for finding the leading sites on a particular topic. The pages they list first are the ones that other sites link to most often. So, in effect, all the people who create Web site links are helping to determine Google's rankings. Another advantage of Google is that it caches, or stores, Web pages. This lets me see expired pages, which normally aren't available.
But Google isn't best for everything. For example, when I needed to find a hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts, I used Yahoo! , because Yahoo! indexes pages by topic, so it gave me a tidy list of links to hotels in Lenox. If I were trying to find an article about Al Gore that was written after the election, I'd use HotBot , which lets me specify date limits like "in the last 6 months." Otherwise I'd be swamped with irrelevant pre-election hits.
Northern Light  and Vivisimo  subdivide hits by subtopics. That's very useful for search terms that have multiple meanings. For example, one of the patients I interviewed for the lung cancer book told me about a play called Wit, and I wanted to learn more about it. I used Northern Light for that search, because I figured it would be easier to focus on relevant hits. Sure enough, the search results included a "Theater and performing arts" category. When I clicked on that, I found the play immediately.
If I strike out with Google, I try one of the metasearch engines, like Dogpile  or Ask Jeeves . These give results from multiple search engines, so they often return too many irrelevant hits. But they're perfect when I want broad coverage. A couple of years ago I wanted to send a funny cheering-up gift to a colleague who'd been through a bad experience. I had seen a T-shirt decorated with pictures of bird droppings, which seemed exactly right. So I surfed over to Ask Jeeves, which lets you type in your question in plain English, and wrote: "Where can I buy a bird shit T-shirt?" In less than a minute I'd found the Web site of a nature store on Cape Cod that carried the shirt.
No search engine covers everything that's online. With obscure topics, a specialized search engine might be best. There's an extraordinary list of specialty search engines at Leiden University . A less complete but also less overwhelming option is Search IQ . When I see these lists, I realize how much I still don't know. But I try to keep up with new developments by occasionally checking the Search Engine Watch Web site . Mostly, though, I've learned by experimenting and paying attention to what works best.
Do you use online reference sources like dictionaries, encyclopedias, thesauri, or quotation finders?
Yes, but only occasionally. I have Microsoft Bookshelf on CD-ROM, whose dictionary and thesaurus I consult often. For the lung cancer book, I sometimes used the online version of Encarta  or the Encyclopaedia Britannica  for basic scientific background.
I find online reference sources particularly handy when I need a tidbit from a reference work I'd never buy, such as a dictionary of symbols  or a dictionary of Australian slang . I've learned about available reference materials from two sites in particular: Reference Desk  provides extensive links to reference materials available online, and Your Dictionary  has a large collection of links to online dictionaries of all kinds, including many medical dictionaries.
Speaking of dictionaries, I can't resist mentioning the amazing list of hundreds of ways to say "vomit" (e.g., "talking to Ralph on the big white telephone") I found at LaughNet .
Back to more serious business, now that telephone directory assistance is so expensive — and unreliable — I always check phone numbers online. Online directories also provide addresses and more flexibility about searching. For example, if I have a phone number, I can search a reverse directory for the name and address. The directory I use most is AnyWho .
Online discussion groups sometimes develop excellent FAQs — answers to Frequently Asked Questions. I was once asked to put together a proposal about roller coasters. I found everything I needed from an FAQ . Of course, the groups are also a way to find people to interview. A good discussion group resource is the Usenet Archive , formerly Deja.com, which lets you search actual discussions for specific text; and the searchable FAQ Index .
How do you find newspaper and magazine articles online? Or do you go to the library for those?
I just about never go to the library for an article anymore. Usually I can find what I need online. I may start by looking at Find Articles , which provides full text free for about 300 publications, including both popular magazines and medical journals. I may also look at ELibrary , which gives subscribers access to the full text of many magazines and newspapers, as well as radio and TV transcripts. Subscriptions are $60 per year. Before I signed up, I tried some searches, which are free, and took their free trial. Northern Light is another site that indexes both free and for-pay articles. Searching is always free.
You can also go directly to individual magazine or newspaper sites, which can be found via links at the American Journalism Review  site. Some magazines post only the table of contents; others post some or all of the current issue, and maybe old issues too. In general, newspaper articles are free on the day of publication and for a week or so afterwards; archived material usually is not free. But there are many exceptions, and policies change, so it always pays to check.
Medline  is the most useful citation index for medical articles. Leading medical journals have Web sites, which are easy to find with a search engine. Google works well for this. Almost all journals provide article abstracts for free, but they often charge to read full text. If I need the full text, I email the author to request a reprint; most oblige.
Do you ever check to see if your own articles are posted online?
Yes, from time to time, I plug my name into a search engine to see what turns up. I also check article databases, as well as magazine and newspaper sites. A few years ago I found fourteen ancient articles of mine in the Boston Globe archives, where they had no right to be. I sent a letter to the Globe and they took them down.
How big a role does email play in your career as a writer?
Huge! I'm a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, which has very active and supportive online communities. I'm in touch with fellow writers via these forums and by email, so I never feel isolated in my home office.
I often send manuscripts to colleagues for comments. Sometimes small groups of us discuss the draft of an article or book chapter via email. When I was working on the early chapters of the lung cancer book, my writer friends told me what was too technical or hard to follow. My expert collaborators couldn't do that, because they know the material too well.
Because email speeds and simplifies communication, new possibilities open. Even if I'm on deadline, I can send a manuscript to a writer friend in Jerusalem for comments. When I was researching smoking cessation methods for the lung cancer book, I read a fascinating article by an Australian anthropologist describing a quitting ceremony performed by elders of a Fiji village. I wanted to ask him a question. In the old days, this would have taken so long that I wouldn't have bothered. But with email, I had his answer the next day.
Email is spontaneous, like conversation — but the words are recorded. I try to remember that when I write. Salon.com published a marvelous article about the "Freudian send" , in which the slip of a finger sends your email to exactly the wrong person. I once received such a message. I'd written to a lawyer friend asking if his company could handle a contract matter for me; he passed my message to his boss. By mistake, his boss sent me a copy of his reply, which said that although they didn't have the necessary expertise, they wanted to snare me as a customer. I knew my friend, who's scrupulously honest, would be mortified. So I sent him the Salon article for consolation, with a message: "Tell your boss to reset the defaults on his email software."
Excerpted from Super Searcher, Author, Scribe by Loraine Page, Reva Basch. Copyright © 2002 Loraine Page. Excerpted by permission of Information Today, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by William Brohaugh, New Media Director, F&W Publications,
Sarah Wernick Medical Writer and Internet Devotee,
Ridley Pearson Crime Novelist,
David A. Fryxell Nonfiction Specialist,
Gregg Sutter Elmore's Legs,
Sheila Bender Writing Teacher, Poet,
David Weinberger High-Tech Topics,
Reid Goldsborough Internet Expert,
Catherine Coulter Romance Writer,
Michael Gross Glitz Writer,
Alfred and Emily Glossbrenner From Bytes to Bios,
Bonnie Kohn Remsberg Dramatic Narratives and Scriptwriting,
Jodi Picoult Reader-Friendly Novelist,
Gary Gach The Buddha Beat,
Paula Berinstein Super at Searching,
Appendix: Referenced Sites and Sources,
About the Author,
About the Editor,