One of the requirements for the final report in this course is to find and use information in external sources—either published, unpublished, or both. Of course, you might feel that your project needs no external information—that you already know it all. However, you should be able to identify information that you don’t know and that needs to be in the report. For example, imagine you were writing backup procedures for running some sort of high-tech equipment at your workplace.
Sure, you may be able to operate the thing in your sleep, but you may not know much about the technical processes or scientific principles behind it. And of course, it could be argued that such discussion is not needed in backup procedures. Background of that sort, however, might indeed be useful. Instructions often benefit by having this kind of background information—it can give readers a fuller sense of why they are doing what they are doing and a way of knowing what to do in case things go wrong.
And of course, it’s important to have some experience using the library and other information sources in a more professional, business-like manner. In freshman writing classes, for example, writers are not challenged to push the library’s resources for all it’s worth—which is normally what typically happens in a technical writing project.
Descriptors and Keywords.
Another big issue when you begin your library search is finding those words and phrases that enable you to find the books, articles, reports, and encyclopedias that have all that information you need. Sometimes it’s not so easy! A keyword (also called a “descriptor”) is a word or phrase under which related information sources are listed. Imagine you’re writing a report on the latest theories about the greenhouse effect: you’d check book catalogs and periodical indexes for “greenhouse effect,” hoping to find lists of books or articles under that keyword. But that might not be the right one; things might be listed under the keyword “global warming” instead. So how do you find the right keywords? Here are some suggestions:
Try to find any book or article on your topic—anything! Then explore it for the vocabulary it uses. In particular, check its listings for titles of other books and articles. You’re likely to find words and phrases that are the common keywords.
Where to stop.
If you faithfully go through the following suggestions, you’re likely to have a long list of books, article, reports, and other sources—more than you could ever read in one semester. What to do? First of all, don’t back away from at least knowing what’s “out there” on your topic. Once you start looking at your list, you’ll see many things that seem to duplicate each other. If, for example, you have five or six books with roughly the same title, just pick the one that is the most recent and that seems the most complete and thorough. Many other sources will branch out into subtopics you have no interest in. And of course many of the items won’t even be available in any nearby library or bookstore.
Finding Information Sources
Once you’ve convinced yourself that you need to go after some external information sources (if you haven’t, get in touch with your instructor) and have found some pretty reliable keywords to use, it’s time to start the search. Where to start though? The logical starting point is whichever information source you think is likely to have the best stuff. For hot, late-breaking topics, articles and proceedings (talks given at conferences that are published) may be the best bet. For stable topics that have been around awhile, books and encyclopedias may be better.
However, if you’re not sure, you may want to systematically check a number of the common types of information sources.
It’s increasingly possible to do much if not all your information gathering on the Internet and particularly through the World Wide Web.
One good starting place for your information search is books.
If you do all these searches, you’re likely to end up with a monster list of books. No, you don’t have to read every one of them. In fact, you may not be able to lay your hands on most of them. Check the list and try to find a book that seems the most recent and the most definitive. (Check tables of contents and indexes to see which are the most thorough, complete, and authoritative.) And, no, you don’t have to read all of it either—just the parts that relate directly to your topic.
As soon as you can, try to get your hands on as many of these books as you can. Check their bibliographies (list of books, articles, and other information sources consulted) at the end of the book, at the ends of chapters, and in footnotes. These will be good leads to other books that your other searches may not have found. Also, while you’re in the stacks, check the books nearby the ones you have on your list; you may see other ones that could prove useful.
Magazine and Journal Articles.
While books give you fairly stable information and often at a higher level of generality, magazines, journals, and newspapers often give you much more specific, up-to-date information. There are two ways to approach finding journal articles: through general indexes and through specialized indexes. Here are some strategies for finding articles:
Check several general indexes for your topic. These indexes cover a broad range of magazines and journals—they are more popular and are for general audiences and therefore can’t be relied on specialized, technical material. Still, they are a great place to start, and if you are not being very technically ambitious with your report, they may supply you with all you need. At ACC, the general indexes include Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. Try finding your topic in the most recent volume of each of these (unless you have a topic that was “hot” several years ago, in which case you’d want to check the index volumes for those years).
Try to find a good specialized index for the field that is related to your topic.
As with books, you won’t be able to read all of the articles you find, nor will you even be able to get access to them (or at least right away). Try finding and reading the abstracts of the article on your list; this is a good way to get a brief picture of what the article contains and whether it will be useful to you. Just try to find the articles that relate directly to your topic, and read them selectively when you get them.
Another good source of introductory information is encyclopedias. You can use these either to get yourself up to speed to read and understand the more technical information you come across, or you can use the encyclopedia information itself in your report (in which you’ll need to document it, as discussed later in this appendix).
Check for your topic in a general encyclopedia, using all the various keywords related to that topic you can think of. As with periodical indexes, encyclopedias are available in general and specialized varieties. You’re familiar with the general encyclopedias such as World Book Encyclopedia and the Britannica. And of course a number of encyclopedias are now available online in CD-ROM format (however, the content of most of these seems rather slight compared to the printed versions). These are great for starters, and in some cases they may provide all the information you need in your report. Also, check any bibliography—lists of related books, articles, and reports—that may be listed at the end of individual articles.
Also try to find an appropriate specialized or technical encyclopedia in which to search for your topic. You may need more technical detail, or your topic may be a tough one not covered very well in general information sources-in which case you may want to consult specialized encyclopedias. Even in this group, there are general ones that cover a broad range of scientific and technical fields.
Reference books—handbooks, guides, atlases, dictionaries, yearbooks.
Another source of information reports is all those reference books out there. Every field has its handbooks (repositories of relatively stable, “basic” information in the field), guides (information on literature in the field, associations, legalities, and so on), atlases (more than just maps, great repositories of statistical data), dictionaries and encyclopedias, and finally yearbooks (articles, data, and summaries of the year’s activity in a given field). You look for them in the catalogs: when you look up your topic, you’ll find entries for these sorts of reference books as well as for the books mentioned earlier in this appendix.
When you write a technical report, you can and should borrow information like crazy—to make it legal, all you have to do is “document” it. If your report makes you sound like a rocket scientist but there’s not a single source citation in it and you haven’t even taken college physics yet, people are going to start wondering. However, if you take that same report and load it up properly with source citations (those little indicators that show that you are borrowing information and from whom), everybody is all the more impressed—plus they’re not secretly thinking you’re a shady character. A documented report (one that has source indicators in it) says to readers that you’ve done your homework, that you’re up on this field, that you approach these things professionally—that you are no slouch.
Number System of Documentation
In the number system, you list your information sources alphabetically, number them, and put the list at the back of your report. Then in the body of your report, whenever you borrow information from one of those sources, you put the source number and, optionally, the page number in brackets at that point in the text where the borrowed information occurs.
What to Document
This question always comes up: how do I decide when to document information—when, for example, I forgot where I learned it from, or when it really seems like common knowledge? There is no neat, clean answer. You may have heard it said that anything in an encyclopedia or in an introductory textbook is common knowledge and need not be documented. However, if you grabbed it from a source like that just recently—it really isn’t common knowledge for you, at least not yet. Document it! If you just flat can’t remember how you came by the information, then it has safely become common knowledge for you.
One other question that is often asked: do I document information I find in product brochures or that I get in conversations with knowledgeable people? Yes, most certainly. You document any information, regardless whether it is in print, in electronic bits, magnetic spots, or in thin air.
How to Place the Source Indicators
It’s a bit tricky deciding exactly where to place the source indicators—at the beginning of the passage containing the borrowed information, at the end? If it makes sense to “attribute” the source (cite the name of the author or the title of the information), you can put the attribution at the beginning and the bracketed source indicator at the end (as is shown in in the following).
Number documentation system: the code numbers in the text of the report are keyed to the references page. For example, [6:5] in the middle of the page from the body of the report indicates that the information came from source 6 (in References), page 5. Notice the attribution of the quotation marks the beginning of the borrowed information and the bracketed source indicator marks the end.
Setting Up the Sources List
A bit more challenging is setting up the list of information sources—that numbered, alphabetized list you put at the end of the document. The best thing to do is use examples. The following illustrations show you how to handle books, government reports, article from magazines and journals, encyclopedia articles, and personal interviews.
Internet and Web information sources
For books, put the name of the author (first name last) first, followed by a period, followed by the title of the book (in italics if you have; otherwise, underline), followed by a period, followed by the city of the publisher, followed by a colon, followed by the publisher’s name (but delete all those tacky “Inc.,” “Co.,” and “Ltd.” things), followed by the year of publication, ending with a period. In this style, you don’t indicate pages.
Example: book entry
Magazine and journal articles
Start with the author’s name first (last name first), followed by a period, then the title of the article in quotation marks and ending with a period, followed by the name of the magazine or journal (in italics if you have it; otherwise, underline), followed by a period, followed by the date of issue of the magazine the article occurs in, followed by the beginning and ending page. If the article spread out across the magazine, you can write “33+.” or “33(5).” The latter style seems to be taking hold; in it, you estimate how many pages the article would be if it were continuous.
If there is no author, start with the article or book title. If there are two authors, add “and” and the second author’s name, first name first. If there are too many authors, use the first one (last name first), followed by “et al.,” which means “and others.”
Example: magazine entry
Encyclopedia articles are easy! Start with the title of the article in quotation marks ending with a period, followed by the name of the encyclopedia (in italics if you have it; otherwise, underline), followed by the period, then the year of the edition of the encyclopedia.
Example: encyclopedia entry
Reports. With reports, you’re likely to dealing with government reports or local informally produced reports. With most reports, you may not have an individual author name; in such cases, you use the group name as the author. For government reports, the publisher is often the Government Printing Office; and the city of publication, Washington, D.C. Also, for government documents, you should include the document number, as is shown in the following example.
Example: entry for a report
Personal interviews, correspondence, and other nonprint sources.
With these sources, you treat the interviewee or letter writer as the author, follow that name with the person’s title, followed by a period, then the company name, followed by a period, then the city and state, followed by a period, then what the information was (“Personal interview” or “Personal correspondence”) followed by a period, ending with the date.
Example: entry for unpublished information
Product brochures. For these kinds of information sources, treat the company name as the author, followed by a period, use something identifying like the product name (including the specific model number), followed by anything that seems like the title of the brochure, followed by a period, ending with a date if you can find one (otherwise, put “N.d.”).
Example: entry for a product brochure
Technical reports and instructions often require cross-references—those pointers to other place in the same document or to other information sources where related information can be found.
Cross-references can help readers in a number of different ways. It can point them toward more basic information if, for example, they have entered into a report over their heads. It can point them to more advanced information if, for example, they already know the stuff you’re trying to tell them. Also, it can point them to related information.
Related information is the hardest area to explain because ultimately everything is related to everything else—there could be no end to the cross-references.
Of course, the preceding discussion assumed cross-references within the same document. If there is just too much background to cover in your report, you can cross-reference some external book or article that does provide that background. That way, you are off the hook for having to explain all that stuff!
Cross-reference consists of several elements:
Name of the source being referenced
This can either be the title or a general subject reference. If it is a chapter title or a heading, put it in quotation marks; if it is the name of a book, magazine, report, or reference work, put it in italics or underline. (Individual article titles also go in quotation marks.)
Required if it is in the same document; optional if it is to another document.
Subject matter of the cross-reference
Often, you need to state what’s in the cross-referenced material and indicate why the reader should go to the trouble of checking it out. This may necessitate indicating the subject matter of the cross-referenced material or stating explicitly how it is related to the current discussion.
These guidelines are shown in the illustration. Notice in that illustration how different the rules are when the cross-reference is “internal” (that is, to some other part of the same document) compared to when it is “external” (when it is to information outside of the current document).
Examples of cross-references
Internal cross-references are cross-references to other areas within your same document; external ones are those to books and documents external to your document.