I've been on vacation from my teaching duties this week, but have just written nine articles over the last five days. Writing well is important, but careful, often-dogged research provides the foundation for every article I write. Research requires a combination of humility ("I don't know enough about this topic and don't want to bullsh#t my readers" -- a thought which may never have crossed Donald Trump's mind about any topic, for instance) and pure determination to find answers and satisfy your curiosity.
You can research an article forever, and yet have more research yet to do. With the coming of the Internet and its partner Mr. Google, you can find more information about an infinite number of topics. What does this torrent of available research mean for writers? You need to know when you've done enough research and collected enough resources to start the writing process. There's no formula here -- it's just a feeling you get from experience. Research is done, now it feels like time to write.
Some fuzzy research guidelines: A longer article will obviously require more research than a shorter one. If the writer has a strong foundation in the topic, i.e., has some expertise, then less research will be needed.
Let's look at a few examples. I've written many articles about hiring and recruiting millennials. So when a client asks me to write a 700-word blog post about how to attract and interview millennial job candidates, I generally know what the post will look like before I begin researching. When I use google and search for "interviewing millennials," I'll already have read (and maybe even written) some of the relevant source material. The goal of my research will be to find a new angle, to say something about the topic that hasn't been said before. This might be challenging, but it's doable.
I'll read articles on my laptop and make notes. Sometimes I'll even print out good sources I come across, and mark up the printout. If I really like a source but don't have access to a printer, I'll cut and paste the URL into my word-processing software so I can re-read it later -- and can also cite to the link when I craft the post. I'll do research on my phone sometimes, like when I'm on the bus.
Attributing sources is important, if not always done by every writer. If you use something, cite the source and link to it. It's just good etiquette and also helps the reader if he or she wants to dive deeper into the topic.
Now, if I'm asked to write something I know little about, maybe concerning trends in cybersecurity or what midsized companies should do when their hybrid cloud computer infrastructure is breached, then I have more challenges in the research phase. If that challenge is too large, I may just turn down the assignment. But as a general rule, I'm a writer because I like to learn new things, and writing is my way of sharing what I've learned. I research more if my learning curve is steeper, not only because I have more to learn but because I need to sound somewhat authoritative to my readers. Readers know when you're bullsh@tting them.
If I'm not a cybersecurity expert, and trust me I'm not, then I might just read research in order to find the structure I need for the article. Once I have a sense of structure, I'll look to cite research in each part of the structure I've sketched out. It's a slower process, and my writing may be more "hedge-y" -- in other words, I need to be clear when I'm not sure about something. When I write these sorts of "learning curve" articles, I try to reach out to someone who knows more about the topic than I do, and ask them to review my draft. I will also rely on feedback from my editor and/or the client.
I enjoy researching, though it can take you into technical areas where you can get exhausted. I can now comfortably write an article on the hybrid cloud, because I've done a few of them, so my learning curve is less steep. But that doesn't mean I enjoy the process. It's a job, and I need to deliver quality for my clients and readers if I want to maintain my professional reputation (I do). That's every writer's obligation, and research helps you meet it.
Follow wherever the research leads you. I love to click on hyperlinks in the research I do, taking me deeper into a topic. You can find great things if you keep digging and remain curious. That said, don't go too deep and get lost in a black hole. Research is a means to an end, good writing, not an end in itself.
I've been writing a lot about the Affordable Care Act/"Obamacare" recently, and the amount of available resources on healthcare reform seems endless. When I find my eyes glazing over, I just take a break, go for a walk, and go back to the research later. Research will always be there waiting. Actually, I think I'll go for a walk now . . . .Feel free to share your thoughts below on research and its connection to writing!