While there might be a few topics you could easily write about without doing a lick of research, most writing assignments require a bit of research to create a cohesive piece.
You might need to do a bit of background research to get started with your outline, or you might be looking for the perfect statistic to use in your opening sentence. Whatever it is you need, our tips on research will take your skills to the next level.
Search Engines: Recognizing Reliable Sources
These days, few writers hit the books when they want to dig into the research. The internet makes almost any type of information readily available.
Of course, we’ve also seen how this can be a bad thing. With a computer and an internet connection, anyone can publish any information, regardless of the truth to their statements. As a writer, it’s important for you to suss out the good from the bad.
Remember that no matter which search engine you use, some of the top results are going to be sponsored ads. Most of these are marked by the word “Ad” or “Sponsored Ad”, but they’re usually designed to blend in with search results, so they can trick you. Using an ad blocker typically eliminates these ads.
Once you’re looking at actual results, you still may need to recognize which sites are good. In general, the following types of sites are the best:
- Recognizable names (e.g. Mayo Clinic or Kiplinger)
- Organizations and Associations (e.g. American Heart Association or AARP)
- Educational or government institutions (e.g. University of Washington or the IRS)
Be wary of the following types of sites:
- Self-published blogging sites
- Sites that are selling a product
Of course, there are no hard-and-fast rules. For instance, some bloggers self-publish heavily researched and referenced posts that could aid you in your research. You should probably look into the blogger’s references, but they might point you in the right direction. On the other hand, Forbes has that brand recognition we’re looking for, but not all of the pieces on their site go through their editorial process. Some are self-published.
Keep a critical eye out when looking at any potential resource.
Search Engine Tips
So you’re committed to using the search engines. Unless you’re searching for highly-specific terms, you’ll probably be inundated with results, and some of those results are going to be less-than-reliable. The key to narrowing down your results is to use modifiers.
You’re probably familiar with the way that putting your search term in quotes will give you results that list those words in that particular order. You might even know that adding a “-” in front of a word will show you results without that word. But there are a lot of these little tricks.
My favorite one is the “site:” modifier. This lets me search results from a specific website or a certain type of website. For instance, if I remembered reading a great article on Scary Mommy and can’t find it again, I might include “site:scarymommy.com” after my keywords. Adding “site:.edu” will give you only results that come from educational websites, while “site:.gov” will give you sites from governmental websites.
You could also use modifiers to find related sites, which is useful when you want to come up with a few different sources, but can’t think of anything off the top of your head. For instance, if I’m writing a medical piece, I might want to get supporting information from the Mayo Clinic, but it’s nice to have sources from other medical leaders like the Mayo Clinic. If I search “related:mayoclinic.com”, I get results like the UCSF Medical Center and the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. I can then search those sites using the “site:” modifier listed above.
Getting input from actual real-life experts will bring some much-needed authenticity to any piece you write. Sure, you can find expert quotes from other sources, but the wording tends to get clunky. You end up writing things like, “As Ms. Expert said to the New York Times…”
It makes you look less professional.
Find your own expert sources. Work connections you might have through your everyday life. Ask friends if they know someone you could interview for this cool piece you’re working on.
If you’re struggling with this, take a look at Help a Reporter Out. Journalists can sign up here to access a wide range of experts.
This type of research is time-consuming, though. Make sure that you’re charging enough for the extra time you’re spending.
Traditionally Published Magazines and Trade Journals
Magazines and trade journals could be a valuable source of information for you. Most of the time, they’re paying both writers and editors a lot of money for well-crafted pieces that are backed by research and fact-checked. That is, as long as we’re not talking about magazines like The Enquirer or celebrity gossip rags.
You can definitely use magazines and trade journals as references for your pieces. You might even use them to generate some new ideas for your pieces.
If you are the type of writer that’s focused on a particular industry, consider subscribing to magazines within your industry.
Wikipedia (Not What You Think)
One of the first rules that any student learns is “Wikipedia is not a legitimate reference.” That’s because it’s a crowd-sourced resource, so anyone can write anything.
You’ve probably shied away from Wikipedia for this reason, but it actually can be surprisingly helpful. See, down at the bottom of any Wikipedia page, you should be able to see references for the facts and claims on that page. You can click through to those sources (or, in some cases, check the book out of the library), and then use them to research your own piece.
It’s the modern version of checking out a writer’s bibliography for some additional sources.
The above tips work well for those who are researching serious topics, but what if you are lucky enough to be working on some “lighter” pieces like decorating ideas or recipe round-ups? Pinterest is the source you need. Simply enter in your search terms, then look at all the pretty pictures.
One tough thing about this resource is that the link you follow doesn’t always lead you to the picture you originally clicked on. For instance, clicking on a picture of a chicken soup recipe might lead you to a site that has the “Top 10 Chicken Soup Recipes” and you have to dig a bit deeper to find what you need. Still, the visual aspect of the site is perfect for certain topics.
On some levels, it’s easier than ever to find the research you need for your latest piece. However, it’s also harder to determine whether or not you’re looking at a quality resource. Our tips should help you become more efficient when doing your research.
Shannon T has been writing professionally for over 10 years. In addition to the thousands of articles, blog posts, and web pages she’s ghostwritten, she has bylined work that’s been published on sites like Headspace.com, ModernMom.com, Chron.com, and Fool.com (The Motley Fool).