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Research: A Building Block for Writers

Research resembles writing in that a great deal of it is more about excluding than including

The key is not getting bogged down in the desire to know everything but knowing where everything you need is located and accessing it.

Use the tips, ideas, and links in this article to build a solid foundation and take your career upward.

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A few years ago I found myself a contributing editor for a small energy magazine that published electrical power articles for engineers, managers, and CEO's. The experience of writing at that level of expertise sharpened my research skills. It made me humble as well.

What do you want to know and where can you get it? The art of research is like any other art; you look deep and wide between the simplicity of boundaries you've established around the project.

In the process of writing the articles I talked to experts, tapped into electronic databases, read primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. I read informational white-papers from governments and the United Nations; accumulated enough resource material to make 50 articles but wrote only a few.

I discovered one of the magic moments of being a writer. I was considered an expert by the non-experts and a credible communicator by the experts. I learned there is a difference between an expert and one who possesses a lot of information.

I was good at gathering information, presenting it, and knowing who had the best sources. That is not only the key for writers, it is the key to the future where we will all be made dumb by the sheer volume of information available.

Beginning Research:

Approach it with a problem to solve. A topic has been picked, there are innumerable problems associated with the topic; now pick one problem and begin to research all the solutions to the problem.

There's no reason to research everything about a subject. And that is especially true if you are trying to sell an article to a magazine. Research enough to make a credible, interesting piece of writing; one that tries to solve a problem shared by the audience you are trying to reach.

The purpose of research is to get information that answers the questions raised by your topic of choice. In that sense no topic is neutral. It contains a problem to be solved; a problem that the reader will accept as a problem. For instance, I once wrote an article on wind power. There are many interesting things about wind power but I framed the article with the problem of expanding energy needs in the next several decades and how wind power might contribute to the mix. Posing the problem at the outset eliminated a lot of extraneous material and allowed me to focus on a set of variables to think about and ask experts about.

Sources to tap into:

  • Scholarly or peer-reviewed journals
  • Edited or authored books
  • First-person accounts
  • Interviews
  • Case studies
  • Surveys
  • Academic journals, monographs, handbooks and encyclopedias
  • Digests of research
  • Newspapers
  • Statistics
  • Legal and governmental information
  • News on current or controversial issues not yet discussed in the journal literature.

Editors aren't interested in scholarly dissertations unless they edit scholarly journals. They want a writer to pose the problem and set out sensible, credible solutions in an entertaining fashion.

The sources are nearly overwhelming. That's why it's so important to have a firm grasp of the problem you have raised by the topic and how you plan to solve the problem for the readers.

Print Sources:

Libraries have struggled a long time with budget cuts in counties across the nation. And while a lot of library books are dated, their reference sections are usually very good. The best search engine in the world is a decent librarian trained and savvy in the gathering of information. Magazines, books, newsletters, and journals often provide secondary research material. Any fact you extract from them should be independently verified if at all possible. Often, the so-called secondary sources can be the product of lax researchers who overlook some facts.

It's best to skim over as much printed material you can before deciding on a tight universe of credible material. Then read that material very carefully and thoroughly. Part of the art of researching is the ability to scan a lot of material and "know" what will help you and what will not.

And make sure you look at the references given in any book or article to run down promising leads for the question you have posed.

Ulrich's International Periodical Directory: This indexes magazines by subject.

Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature is an old standard but limited in the scope of magazines it indexes. Remember that there is a difference between an index and an abstract. Abstracts include summaries of articles and indexes are lists of subjects.

One of the best things you can do is request information from an association connected with the topic at hand. They will send you material, usually glossy back issues of their publication. And in that publication will be references, footnotes, bibliographies that will take you deep into the subject. It's a vast chain and you need a bit of Sherlock Holmes to be effective.

Net Sources:

The Internet is a necessity now and any public institution has to have some Net presence.

In my seven years of being on the Net I have found librarians to be the best aggregators of research material. Gary Price, for instance. Get the best resources from the directories set up by competent people but always use the search engines, like Google, to rake through the Net. And don't take the first ten links that pop up. Go very deep into it by ignoring many pages that obviously are not a fit. Take chances and click on ones that seem to be credible; go deep in the search. Try the 15th or 75th or 100th page of the search results. Some of the hidden jewels are back there.

Some tips:

  1. Check the date of content as well as the date of the Web page.
  2. Can you find the author's identity and credentials?
  3. Do you detect bias in the author?
  4. Keep notes on your research and file them away so you can use them again.

Excellent resources for backgrounds and topics:

The Journalist's Tool Box from American Press Institute
InfoUSA is put out by the U.S. State Department on behalf of visitors, new immigrants, or the curious.
Britannica Online
Information Please
Library Spot

How to find government information on the Net.
Conducting Research On The Internet
Jonathan Otis introduces the reader to searching public records online. Very useful links.
Starting Points for Internet Research from the Online Writing Lab from Purdue University.
RobertNiles.com can help you.
A comprehensive collection of academic and professional publications available for online, fax and Ariel delivery.

I highly recommend exploring the above links to fully understand how to effectively research on the Internet. Keep a research notebook and write down the most useful tips and websites.

Colleges, universities, professional associations, even governments seem to have the most credible information. Toss in a few dedicated, devoted individuals who collect excellent links and the writer has a large array of things to work from.

Online Databases:

Source for search engines and more.


How important is fact-checking? A recent Newsweek article suggested giving a particular food to a baby which turned out to be not too healthy for toddlers. Newsweek had to pull thousands of copies from the shelves, redo them, offer apologies, and wait for the inevitable legal action that will occur because of their bad fact-checking.

Observe these things:

  1. What, if any, is the author's personal agenda?
  2. What, if any, is the agenda of the sponsoring organization?
  3. Can you detect bias in the design of the research?

Evaluating web sites from Lesley University.
Evaluating Quality on the Net.
Factcheck.org: Annenberg Political Fact Check.


The most effective research, especially in article writing, comes from consulting and interviewing an expert. My experience tells me that experts like to talk about their expertise. And they can be generous with their time.

The key point is knowing what you know and getting the expert to clarify points that you don't quite understand. Note: Never compete with the expert over his expertise. And beware that some of them can go on and on past the gist of the subject. Editor's have indicated that they prefer professional writers to experts to write articles because experts tend to have some political ax to grind in their specific field or they write about their own accomplishments. Get the gist, get out and say thank-you.

In the article I wrote on wind power I connected with a professor at a small college in western Texas. He was a continual source of excellent research from his laboratory and graciously made himself available to my pestering questions. When you find a good, credible expert make sure you treat him or her well!

Adding an expert to primary and secondary resources, with the aim of effecting some solution to a problem shared by readers, will create a piece of writing that will be bought by an editor.

* * * * *

And I've discovered one other fantastic benefit to research. Whatever a writer learns is his forever. It becomes part of the knowledge database so crucial for the potency of the writer.

Written by David Eide, Sunoasis.com

Some books used in preparing this article:

The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Greg. Colomb and Joseph Williams. Published by the University of Chicago Press, 1995

The Elements of Editing by Arthur Plotnik, published by Collier Books, 1984

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David Eide
Copyright 2000-2006



David Eide
copyright 2000-2006