Writer Research Tips from a Librarian
As a freelance writer, one day I might be researching health care and the next day–or the next hour–the topic could be web marketing or furniture. The better my research skills, the faster I can find information and the more credible that information is. This makes for freelance writing that both satisfies client needs and helps me meet my financial goals. As a freelancer with a master’s degree in library and information science, I’ve learned how to research effectively so I work quickly while satisfying clients–and I’m happy to share tips with other freelancers.
First, start with good sources–but how are freelance writers to know what makes a quality source? When doing web searches, you can choose to limit a search to specific domains in hopes of finding a relevant resource by using the syntax “query site:” and entering in the site you want to search. For example, writing “maple pests site:garden.org” or “maple tree pests site:.edu” limits your search on maple tree pests to the National Gardening Association (garden.org) or to any educational institution.
This helps with a straightforward search topic, but all freelance writers have stories of those painful searches that drag out without leading to anything that helps. Sometimes it seems like Wikipedia says it best, and the savviest research librarians know that Wikipedia can sometimes be a good starting point. To leapfrog from Wikipedia to more authoritative sources, scan the references at the bottom of the page and follow the relevant ones. Also, read the article body and note what terms are used, especially any industry-speak terms, then try searching those terms. The new terms may open up the topic. Because Wikipedia offers a bridge between a topic and its meaning, it strives to provide a concise explanation and may help you refine your search terms to get a better match.
With some freelance assignments, a pop culture source works best. If you’re researching a singer’s style for a blog post, music mags, industry blogs, and even Wikipedia work far better than any .edu search. Before you delve into research, always think about what channel works best for starting your research and begin there.
Once you find a source, try to evaluate it before you begin writing. A credible source should be authoritative, so blog posts and opinion pieces won’t fly here. If you’re unsure whether a source is credible,” check the footer and bio for clues. If a site accepts user submissions, it will generally say so in the footer and isn’t really credible. A good source will have an organization or author bio that displays some sort of expert knowledge.
Once you trust a source, scan quickly to see if it has the information you need. If it doesn’t, move on! This may seem like a time-intensive approach to research, but test it for a week. By improving search skills and information evaluation skills, you can get faster at researching, move through research jams, and improve earning potential.
Lindsey D is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.