|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.
tips, ideas, and links in this article to build a solid foundation and take your career
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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
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
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
- Case studies
- Academic journals, monographs, handbooks and encyclopedias
- Digests of research
- 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.
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
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
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.
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.
- Check the date of content as well as the date of the
- Can you find the author's identity and credentials?
- Do you detect bias in the author?
- 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.
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.
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
Observe these things:
- What, if any, is the author's personal agenda?
- What, if any, is the agenda of the sponsoring organization?
- 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
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.
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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
The Elements of Editing by Arthur Plotnik, published by
Collier Books, 1984
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