Writing 101: Research and References

This is part of a series of tips and tricks aimed at helping freelance writers, sourced from veteran writers and editors who have been in the business for years.

If you've read the first set of tips on Relating to Your Audience, this is a continuation of the series on writing tips for freelancers. After learning about your audience, as well as the tone and voice you need to take to be able to relate to them, let's cover the next thing you need to do before you start tapping on those keys. 


image: from Aiyaz Kidwai, via FreeImages.com

Doing "Enough" Research

Any writer worth their salt should know the value of doing proper research, especially on topics that they aren't familiar with. Unfortunately, a lot of writers still miss the point. Freelance writers usually don't have the luxury of time to do thorough research for a dozen topics for a dozen articles, but there's still a way to do it so you don't end up with a raw submission while making sure that you still make your deadlines.

Here's a quick tip: do enough research to understand your topic. You don't necessarily have to be an expert, but you should learn enough about the topic that if it came up in a casual conversation, you should be able to have an opinion about it.

Here's an example: if you're writing about cars, you don't have to know about specific gear ratios, but you should at least understand what a "gear ratio" is, how it works, and how it affects a car's performance. Of course, if your article is supposed to focus on gear ratios and transmission types, you have to do the requisite research for specifics. Ultimately, you should know enough that if your buddies ever talk about cars, you can join the conversation and have an opinion on the pros and cons of driving a car with a 6-speed manual transmission versus an automatic 4-speed on city roads for instance.

A personal understanding of a particular topic will help you write more fluid and informative articles.

Using Credible Sources and References

This part is related to research, but also includes how you apply your research. The challenge in doing research is in finding the most credible source, and then finding the information that you need from that source. Unfortunately, the Internet has made this tricky, since it allows anyone to publish content without any form of regulation. There are no hard and fast rules on determining credibility, but you can start by using sources that you know to be credible and balanced.  

For example, if you needed statistics for an article on aviation safety, the FAA can be cited as a credible source. A commercial airline company might offer the data that you need, but it might not be the most balanced source, since it’s a business that operates within the industry and may have biases.

If your topic has multiple sources, go through them and choose the ones that provide the most credible information. This doesn't mean that you should only choose one, though. Understanding a topic through research would likely involve reading different angles and articles related to the story, as this gives you more points of view for a wider understanding.

Finally, when applying what you've learned into your article, make sure that you always attribute your sources properly when you use data and quotes. If you do proper research and state your references within the flow of your article, your editor will certainly appreciate the fact that you made their task easier for them. 

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Sean is a professional tech journalist and editor with more than a decade of experience covering consumer tech and information security for both print and online publications. He currently works for an IT security company by day and freelances at night.

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Writing 101: Relating to Your Audience