Lesson 4 – The Research Process

Whatever you’re writing, you’re going to have to do some research.

Sometimes, that research might seem minimal or even non-existent: for instance, when you’re producing a blog post on a topic which you already know well. Essentially, you’ve already done your research, through what you’ve already studied and read.

Other times, you’ll be faced with writing a piece on something that you know almost nothing about. Obviously enough, you’ll need to find out as much as you can before you start writing.

The amount of research you do will depend on what you’re writing. If you’re producing a piece about something medical or technical, you need to be sure that your facts are from reputable sources. If you’re writing an opinion-based blog post, you won’t need the same level of in-depth research.

Where to Find Information Online

While Google is usually a good place to get started, often you’ll find that more specific websites can produce better results. The resources below will help you with that.

1. Infoplease: From current events to reference-desk resources to features about history, this site puts a remarkable array of information within reach. Guides to the nations of the world, timelines of political, social, and cultural developments, special quantitative and qualitative features like “The World’s Most Corrupt Nations” and “Color Psychology,” and more cover just about anything you could think of.

2. The Internet Public Library: Unlike the other reference centers on this list, the IPL is a portal to other Web sites, brimming with directories of links in topics like Arts & Humanities. (Dictionary of Symbolism? Check. Ask Philosophers? Right. Legendary Lighthouses? We got your legendary lighthouses right here.) If you need background information on either fiction or nonfiction projects, stop by for a visit — I just dare you to leave without a digressive click or ten.

3. The Library of Congress: The online presence of the official repository of knowledge and lore of the United States is an indispensable resource not only for nonfiction writers seeking background information for topics but also for fiction authors seeking historical context for an existing project or inspiration for a new one.

4. Merriam-Webster Online: The publishing world’s dictionary of record is at your fingertips online as well as in print, with a thesaurus and Spanish-English and medical compendia, to boot. The dictionary also includes refreshing can’t-we-all-just-get-along usage commentary. (That and which, as pronouns that introduce restrictive clauses, are interchangeable.) You’ll also find video tutorials on usage from dictionary staff, a Word of the Day feature, word games, and a variety of language-watch features.

5. Refdesk: Refdesk.com, like Infoplease, is a clearinghouse for online research, with links to headline news and timeless information alike. You can easily get lost in its Daily Diversions directory, which includes links not only to humor, games, and trivia sites but also to more respectable resources like DailyWritingTips.com (whoo!). If you have a question, chances are you can find the answer on this site.

6. Snopes: How do you verify that this self-described “definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation” is what it claims to be? Go to the site and find out. The fine folks at Snopes.com will set you straight about any one of hundreds of posts — each with a prominent judgmental icon, and commentary to back it up — about that one thing you think you remember you heard about that one thing. (For example: Posh comes from an acronym for “port out, starboard home” — the ideal respective locations for accommodations on a luxury liner — right? Cue the buzzer. Bogus.) TruthOrFiction.com is a similar site.

7. Wikipedia: This user-generated online encyclopedia got a lot of flak a few years ago for some inaccurate information posted by someone with a grudge, but that was an isolated incident. Also, many sources warn against using Wikipedia as a primary source for research. That said, don’t hesitate to avail yourself of the wealth of information available on the site — much of which is written by subject-matter experts in the field in question. Then click on one of the online sources linked in the footnotes, or take your search to one of the other sites in this list.

One Neat Trick

You can use Google to find where and how a certain website or publication covered the topic you are researching about. Suppose you are writing an article about “marijuana legislation.” You can find what the NY Times wrote about it by searching on Google for “site:nytimes.com marijuana legislation.”

This trick is great to find quotations about any topic as well.

Different Types of Research

These are four key types of research which you’ll probably find yourself doing at some stage. You’re unlikely to need all four in the same piece! For each one, I’ve indicated when in the writing process you’ll want to do it.

1. Statistics and Figures

Not all statistics are accurate. Be careful to look for solid sources (like government websites) rather than relying on blog posts or your own memory. You’ll often want to cite a source for your information.

So long as you have a rough idea of the numbers, this sort of research can often be left till last. For instance, you might want to know the population size of a particular town – you can leave a gap in your piece and look it up at the end.

2. Quotations

Often, it’s helpful to quote someone else’s words. Ideally, get these from as close to the source as possible (for instance, look at the original press release or the company’s websites, rather than reading blog posts that are based on news reports about the press release…)

When you quote someone, you should give their full name. It’s useful to give their job title and company/organization too, particularly if you’re quoting them because they’re regarded as an expert. If you’re quoting a passage from a book or blog post, give the title of the piece and, where appropriate, a link to it.

You can add in quotations at any stage of the writing process – but if they’re going to inform what you write, then it’s useful to find several before you start.

3. Instructions

This sort of research applies if you’re producing any form of technical piece – such as a guide to using Twitter, or instructions for changing the oil in your car. It’s a good idea to:

  • Walk through the process yourself – set up a new account, even take screenshots.
  • Read any guides produced by the company, if applicable.
  • Look at tutorials and instructions written by others. Don’t rely on these alone – you don’t want to copy someone else’s mistakes.

For this sort of piece, you’ll need to do most of your research before you begin. You can’t easily start on a step-by-step guide without having an idea of what the steps are…

4. Gathering Ideas

Some of the pieces you write won’t necessarily be based on hard facts. They’ll be more like opinion or general advice. For instance, you might be writing an article on “How to Have a Great Relationship With Your Boss.”

In this case, you’ll probably want a quotation or two (e.g. from HR professionals) and even some statistics (e.g. a survey of what bosses do and don’t like) – but you’ll probably be relying on your own ideas and experience, plus that of other people.

You can:

  • Write down all your own ideas, perhaps as a list or a mindmap.
  • Google for the topic or title of your post, and see what others have written.
  • Find several sources and look for any ideas or advice which they have in common – these are probably worth including, though try to avoid using anything which seems trite or too obvious.

You’ll need to have a good grasp on the ideas before you begin to write (though you can always add in some extra ideas during the editing phase, if your piece seems a little short).

If You Already Know a Lot

In some cases – perhaps in most of your writing, depending on your specialization – you’ll already know a lot about the topic you’re covering. In that case, you don’t necessarily need to research ahead of time, but you do need to clarify your thoughts.

Write an outline, jotting down key facts which you want to mention. In the course of your writing, make a note to yourself if you find that you need to look something up. During the redrafting stage, you can do those extra bits of research.

Write Your Outline While Researching

It’s generally not a good idea to jump straight from research into your draft: you want a framework for your piece. For longer projects, your client may also want you to send them at least a rough outline.

It can be helpful to write your outline at the same stage as doing the research: this can save you from doing tons of research which you don’t use. For instance, if you’re writing a post on “Ten foods to keep your heart healthy”, you’ll probably want to pick those ten foods as quickly as possible, and then do some in-depth research on each one.

Your outline can be as detailed or as sparse as you like, but I’d suggest that you jot down the key headings or points for each section.

If you consistently produce pieces in a similar format (maybe you write a lot of “how to” guides, for instance), you can easily create a generic outline or template. This can save a lot of time when you come to write as your brain will automatically start to fill in the blanks, and you’ll know roughly how much research you’ll need to do in order to fill the space.

Outlining can also help you spot areas where you’re missing important facts or information. If you launch into the writing too quickly, you might have to rework your whole piece when you add in some crucial new bit of research.

Can You Use the Same Research for Different Clients?

If you’re specializing in particular topic areas, you may well find that similar articles would work well for two different clients. This is a potentially sticky area, where you need to be careful about the ethics of what you’re doing.

When you’re writing a piece for hire, it will almost always be unique. You definitely can’t sell the exact same piece to a different online client. (Selling the print rights, however, might be okay.)

The ideas within a piece don’t become the property of the client, though, and any facts which you uncovered are simply facts – no-one owns those.

I’d recommend that you avoid writing two articles on the same topic in the same week. There’s usually no legal issue with this (unless, say, you were paid to carry out original research for one client and then used that research for the other as well) – but imagine your client’s feelings if they saw a similar piece on a rival’s website.

Usually, letting a couple of months go by is sufficient. Then turn back to the ideas in a previous article, and rework them for your new client. Often, you’ll find that the piece ends up with quite a different focus, due to clients having different needs and different audiences.

Storing Your Research

If you do write on similar topics frequently, you’ll want to keep your research somewhere handy. I like to tag online information in Delicious, but you might prefer to collate your research in an application like Evernote.

You might have particular facts or statistics that you need to refer to frequently – try creating a master document to hold these, so you can look them up quickly.

Some writers like to research several articles or blog posts at once. In this case, you might want to start a document for each one, and start jotting down the facts and information which you plan on using. If you’re writing several pieces on similar topics (perhaps a series of articles or posts), you could keep all the research in one single document.

When you store research for future use, remember to include a link back to the original source – that way, it’s easy to find further information or give a citation.