In a world where “alternative facts” circulate like wildfire, it’s critical to have strong research skills. That’s why I’ve dedicated this page to tips, tricks and ideas for doing better research.
Solid research follows a storyline or hypothesis you want to flesh out. After gaining a high-level overview, it’s time to narrow your research.
As you learn more, be prepared to adapt your storyline and thesis.
A good researcher uses high-quality sources, applies critical thinking, connects otherwise unconnected dots and follows hunches.
Why use mindmaps?
A mindmap is a visual collection of related ideas that shows the links between those ideas. During a brainstorming session, the act of mindmapping can help generate even more ideas because the writer sees their interrelatedness more clearly.
How story plans can keep you organized and focused
A story plan is a single place to hold the material you need to write your story. I am grateful to an instructor at Columbia University, Tina Rosenberg, who turned me on to story plans. I keep a wide variety of blank templates in Word and begin collecting there when I accept an assignment.
I use story plans to hold practical information, such as the assigned word count for the story, as well as “questions to ask,” a proposed nut graf, and data that may apply to the story.
More on story plans
The basic concept behind a story plan is to have a single document to track important things you need to know as you develop a story. It works great for projects as well – e.g. as a master project plan document.
Story plans include placeholders for important points, so they’re also great checklists.
Some of the most important categories I fill out in my story plans are:
- Questions to ask
- Narrow focus/angle to take
- Why are we writing this now and why should my reader care about it
- Possible story structure
It is the writer’s job to consider these things before writing.
With these points clarified, I can report and interview around certain ideas and focus in on the telling detail without losing my way in masses of information.
Sample research subjects I've worked on
References upon request
Topics I was recently asked to research (outside of a story assignment):
- Bioengineering and cyborgs
- Industry 4.0 business models
- Incentive systems for innovation in energy infrastructure
- Citizenship and its role in urban development
- Chinese consumer psychology
- Key challenges facing members of energy markets (e.g. consumers, governments, producers, environmental activists)
- Sustainable livelihoods in rural Africa: Focus on farming
Tip: What you need to know before you begin researching
It’s great to let your research creativity run wild. First you need to know some background:
- What is the purpose of the research?
- How will it be used initially? (Text, blog, speech?)
- What do we have already? (briefly)
- Who is the target reader?
- What, if any, is the business interest related in the subject?
With these questions clarified, it’s time to turn to the task of brainstorming and researching.
The world outside of Google
As a reporter and writer, I have a responsibility to use advanced search techniques. If I’m only doing simple Google searches, it’s a disservice to my readers.
Therefore, I am a student of these techniques, I look to proprietary databases, and I try to keep my research skills fresh by following the work of investigative reporters. I subscribe to their newsletters or listen to their training podcasts.
Besides research for my own writing, I also:
- Do standalone story research
- Research concepts and over-arching ideas for events
- Research speakers and develop interview questions for use at events
- Conduct research for infographics