15 June 2011
Strong research is the key to writing non-fiction articles that sell, and which readers find useful, but where do you start, and how do you prevent your article sounding like an encyclopedia entry? We're here to help... ...
So, you’ve got a really great idea for an article; you may even have managed to get the editor of a magazine or newspaper interested. But how do you go about getting the background information for your piece? Here are some tips for getting that research done effectively and efficiently.
1 What type of information does your article need?
Have a clear idea of what you are hoping to find out, or your research will lack focus. Rather than aimlessly flicking through a book or browsing a few websites, hoping something interesting will jump out at you, make a list of exactly what you need to know in order to write your article.
This should be quite straightforward, as part of your planning – when you are sketching the outline to your article you can simply make a note next to anything you don’t already know. For example, if you are writing about a local landmark of historical interest, you may have decided to cover when and how it was built, what it was originally used for, any interesting tales connected with it, how it could be used now to serve the community, and the amount of funding needed to secure its future. This outline plan will now form the basis for your research.
2 How much information does your article need?
This will depend on several factors. You may already have a good knowledge of the topic you are writing about, in which case you shouldn’t need to do too much additional research, although you do be sure to check any facts you are not completely sure of – it is easy to misremember things! If you do have personal experience or knowledge of a subject, your piece will often sound more natural than if you rely heavily on research.
The amount of information required will also depend on the length of your article, and whether it is a one-off piece or part of a series – the more you have to write, the more you need to know. You may of course find that your chosen topic is far bigger than you thought, in which case you may decide to write a number of articles pitched at different publications, each offering a different angle on the subject.
3 How much detail do you need to go into?
The key thing to consider here is your audience, and the type of publication that your article is aimed at. If you are writing for children, or for people with no existing knowledge of a topic, then you should avoid very complex and detailed explanations that may confuse or bore your readers.
Equally, if you are writing for a specialist publication that has readers who are already quite knowledgeable about the subject, then you will have to offer them something new that they don’t already know, or perhaps a new angle on the topic. For this reason, you should only write about areas that you know well for this type of market.
4 Where is the best place to get your information?
In some ways, the arrival of the internet has made research much easier, as facts can very quickly be checked online, saving a great deal of time and effort and removing the need to go to a library or track down people to talk to.
However, whilst the internet can be an invaluable resource, it is easy to get lazy and over-rely on it as your sole source of information when other methods might be more appropriate. For example, there is no substitute for actually visiting the medieval castle that you are writing about, or going to a library and actually seeing the manuscripts of the novelist who you have chosen as the topic of your article.
5 Check your research sources carefully.
This is particularly true if you are using the internet for your research, as information published online is not generally vetted in the same vigorous way that a book would be checked during the publication process. Some websites are notoriously unreliable, particularly those which anyone can contribute to, as there is no way of knowing whether the writer is giving correct information.
The standard rule of checking at least three sources for one fact should still be applied to the internet but take extra care – you may find a number of sources that agree on a particular piece of information, but they could all be wrong if they have taken it from a site that was incorrect in the first place.
6 Find some interesting people to talk to.
Clearly, interviewing people will not be appropriate for every topic, but in many circumstances this is a useful research method. Most people don’t mind being asked for their opinion or expertise on something, and often speaking to an expert on something can save you a lot of online or book research.
It is up to you how you decide to use material collected in this way; you may speak to someone just to check a fact, or you may decide that you want to include interviews within your article itself. This can certainly be a good way of bringing a piece to life, and including the views of two people who have differing opinions or attitudes can be a useful method of presenting a balanced view.
7 Don’t get distracted by irrelevancies.
This is true no matter where you get your information from, although obviously the internet is particularly dangerous for side-tracking the would-be researcher – don’t even think about have a quick look at your emails or Facebook while you’re meant to be finding something out!
Books may also lead you away from what you are meant to be doing – if you just need one fact about Henry VIII, for example, then don’t get sucked into reading the rest of the book, no matter how interesting it may be. It’s all too easy to think that you’re doing background reading that could come in useful one day, but this is not a very practical way of working, particularly if you have a deadline to meet.
8 Make your research interesting for the reader.
There’s no point in offering a dry list of facts that your reader could easily find out for themselves – your job as a writer is to take the information you’ve found and weave it into a piece that entertains as well as informs.
Quite apart from this consideration, you should never try to pass off the material you’ve discovered during your research as your own, as this is plagiarism – a very serious offence for a writer. Very few people would do this deliberately, but it is surprisingly easy to plagiarise without meaning to; some publications, for example, consider as few as three consecutive words that match an existing source to be plagiarism, so take care to make your work entirely your own.
9 Make sure you record your research sources carefully.
Every time you find a fact or piece of information that you think may be useful, make sure you record the full details of where you found it. It is quite common to want to go back to a source to double-check something, or use it further, and to have lost track of what book or website gave you the information.
Similarly, if you have interviewed people for your piece, make sure you have recorded their names and their words accurately – mistakes here are at best sloppy and disrespectful, or at worst potentially libellous. You have to protect your reputation as a writer; if you get a name for sloppy and inaccurate work then an editor is unlikely to even bother reading your work, let alone using it.
10 Tell the reader how to find out more.
This is particularly important if your article is a stand-alone piece rather than part of a series, or if your chosen topic is a complex one – you cannot possibly hope to cover everything in a short piece. The best thing to do here is to acknowledge the limitations of your article and list some useful contacts, books or websites that the reader may like to investigate if your piece has piqued their interest. This is the point you’ll be glad you kept a list of all the useful sources you found during your research.
Remember, editors and readers are looking for articles that they can trust, and if you do your research right you could be just the person to provide them.