by Timothy Perrin, Will Romano, Deborah Jeanne Sergeant, & Jeffery D. Zbar
In most cases, a work of nonfiction requires some amount of research and interviewing. Whether or not you’re already an expert on your topic, it’s vital that you do all the necessary work to get accurate information.
Even though research is essential, it doesn’t have to consume all of your time—in fact, it shouldn’t. Make sure you leave time to actually write. Take your researching and interviewing seriously, but also enjoy it. After all, if you’re interested in writing, you’re interested in learning new things and finding answers to questions.
Tackling Any Topic
Write what you know? While it seems perfectly sound on one level, living by this mantra can limit and even deter your career. In order to grow as professionals, writers should be taught to write what they
Why take on work in this manner? For one, it builds your repertoire. Second, editors want all-around writers whom they can send on any assignment. Third, it opens doors to other opportunities. If you can research and write about an unfamiliar subject, you bring to the table a fresh perspective. Editors always need new ideas—even new takes on old topics.
Of course, you can’t learn every tiny detail about a subject, or you’ll never stay within your deadline. But you must gain good working knowledge, concentrate on finding key points, get your facts straight and talk with the right people.
After hours of research and interviewing, you’ll notice when you start to write that your words have depth and authority. Suddenly, you’ll discover that you’re a legitimate source of information; in short, you’ll have become a kind of expert.
Here’s how to get up to speed on any subject:
- DO A TARGETED INTERNET SEARCH. Study every relevant website you can find. You may have some intense reading to do the night before a big interview, but it’ll be worth it.
- READ ALL ABOUT IT. Read magazines, journals, and books related to your subject to pick up the jargon, trends, leads, and ideas.
- USE MULTIMEDIA SOURCES. Documentaries and CD-ROMs are fun and quick ways to soak up facts and build a foundation.
- WHEN IN DOUBT, FIND OUT. If you’re not sure of something, ask an expert. Double-checking with an authority is the safest and quickest way to get information, and it’ll save work later.
- LET IT BREATHE. Give yourself time to nail inconsistencies in your story.
While these steps won’t make you a certified expert, they will help you write about even the most foreign of topics. Don’t underestimate yourself: With a little legwork, you can tackle any topic.
One of the most important steps in your research is finding the sources you need for the story. If you’ve written about this topic before, you should have some good ideas about where to start searching for the people you’ll need to interview.
Writers constantly face the challenge of finding people to share information that will make their work believable, entertaining, and accurate. Not only must you find someone to talk to, you must try to find the right someone.
With any project, the first thing to ask is whether you need a true expert, or just someone to give you background on, say, hunting. The guy at the local sporting goods store may be fine for the latter. But when you need more authority, here are some ways to track down the right experts.
Backtrack to the Source
Ideas often come from something you’ve seen or read elsewhere, a conversation, or the experience of an acquaintance. Whose quote in the story started you thinking? With whom was your conversation? Who had the interesting experience? Often these people will have useful information and can get you started.
Use Basic Directories
Your local phone book is a convenient source of experts. It’s full of professionals of every stripe. Don’t overlook them. The directories available on the Web can broaden your search nationally or even internationally.
Ask Other Writers
One of the best sources you can tap is your network of other writers who may have worked on a related story. Online communities are perfect for this kind of inquiry. If you want to cast a broader net, Internet newsgroups and email lists are good options.
Seek Out Groups
If you’re looking for a particular kind of expertise, professional organizations can steer you in the right direction. For example, the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association maintain lists of experts in particular topics and can often point you to a qualified person in your area. If you need someone from a less obvious profession—say, chicken farmers—check the Encyclopedia of Associations at your local library for the right group.
Use PR to Your Advantage
Believe it or not, there are people who make their livings finding experts just for you. You’ll find them in any public relations office. Start with your local college or university. The PR department will likely have a list of faculty members and their areas of expertise.
Build Your Own Contact Files
Make a list of experts and resources. You may spend a day or more looking for that one perfect industry expert or analyst. Why let that person end up buried in your archives?
Create a list of experts, analysts, and industry insiders—indexed by category—which you can turn to when a specific topic arises in the future. After all, editors hire freelancers for the information they have—including the industry contacts they’ve amassed. Part of your expertise as a writer is your little black book of contacts.
Cast a Wider Network
Never miss an opportunity to meet new people. Finding experts can be challenging, but once you learn how to do it, it can become the most rewarding part of writing. At each stop, you’ll talk to the best and brightest people who will want to share just what you need to know.
One caveat: When you’ve identified your experts, make sure you know their background—and agenda. On rare occasions, you will run into people who are more interested in selling a book or a point of view than they are in providing information. Ask all your sources how they came to know about their subject matter, what their experience is in the field, and what degrees they have, and from what schools. Also, ask about the people you’ve already interviewed. What’s their standing in the community of experts? In the course of half a dozen interviews on a story, you’ll quickly find out who’s who.
If you’ve been collecting and recycling information and stockpiling contacts, then the next step is to organize everything so you can find it when you need it. If you have scads of files filled with useful information, but don’t look in these vast resources, then your organization and research is useless. Decide what you’re going to keep and where you’re going to keep it—and remember to make the filing system part of your professional life so you don’t recreate the research wheel every time you need a pithy piece of insight.
Here are four tips for turning vast stockpiles of otherwise latent research and data into user-friendly, actionable, and powerful snippets for your stories or leads for future pieces.
- INDEX YOUR PAST WORK. If you specialize in a certain area, create an index of past articles so they can be reused, or at least accessed, for information. This way, you’ll have all your work—by topic, date, subject, etc.—at your fingertips. Just open a Word document or Excel file and start to log your work. Include the date the article was created, the file name, a brief note about the story, and whom it was written for. This also will help you track resales of your articles in the future. An important point here: Archiving must be done regularly or it will become daunting to go back and enter months of articles—and a potentially powerful tool will become useless.
- DEVELOP A ‘‘TOPICAL’’ TIPS FILE. When editors come calling for story ideas to take into their editorial meetings, grab the hanging file you should have filled with potential leads and clips, and type up some ideas from it. Central to being an expert scribe on a topic is knowing what the trends are and having plenty of story ideas to pursue. This is especially important if you write a recurring feature or column and have to think up stories with regularity.
- REVISIT YOUR FILE CABINET. It’s great to have a powerful, insightful, and deep research archive—but only if you actually use it. Every few months, browse through your folders, whether they’re on your computer or in the file cabinet, as well as your Internet bookmarks. This will refresh your memory about the data you’ve amassed—and the variety of topics at your fingertips to cover for a new market or from a different angle.
- CULL YOUR FILES. Files bulging with dated clips or reports burden potentially useful reference information with useless old data. Every few months, go through your desk, your files, and your email inbox to weed out information that’s past its prime. Before you toss that fax, report, or email, scan it for any person or organization’s name that might be helpful down the road. Transfer that information to your contact management system of choice.
It’s important to have a filing system that fits your personal information needs, but it’s more important to live that system. Stay up to date with your data, files, and categories. You may find that one category should be broken down into several more to aid in the retrieval of useful information.
Researching is an essential part of writing, but it doesn’t have to be tedious or difficult. Planning ahead and staying organized can make any daunting research task much easier. Take the time you need, and enjoy the research phase of your writing—just don’t get so caught up in it that you postpone the actual writing part of