How to Do Quick Research

Typing away

When you’re asked to write about a subject on which you’re not an expert, now is not the time to “fake it ’til you make it.”
Photo by Adikos (Flickr)

Many of us have expertise in something, but sometimes, we have to write about things we know nothing or very little about. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to do fast research for short educational articles when you don’t have much knowledge on the topic:

Step 1: Make No Assumptions

This step has two requirements: being able to recognize when you’re making an assumption, and being able to ignore all prior knowledge. The first is extremely difficult. When writing historical fiction that takes place far in the past, one might not realize that the characters wouldn’t really say things like “Okay.” Not assuming things about the subject mostly comes with practice. The second requirement has to do with assuming zero knowledge. Past, incorrect knowledge can have more of a negative impact than no knowledge. For instance, you could be writing an article about the Civil War and then assume that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, because that’s what you remember from school. However, the Emancipation Proclamation only “freed” slaves in territories that were at war with the Union, so in this instance, you may be caught writing something that is incorrect.

Step 2: Get the Gist

You shouldn’t use non-authoritative links as sources or write specifically about facts or tips found on these pages, but non-authoritative sources can help you gain basic working knowledge of a topic. News articles, step-by-step guides, manuals, chronological timelines, and biographies are examples of things that can give you the gist of the subject. Again, don’t write about any specific facts you’ve found on non-authoritative sites. Statements that sound legitimate should be found on an authoritative site to fact-check them, should you want to mention them in your piece. For example, when writing about dark matter, you could watch a lecture on YouTube or read a newspaper article to learn some basics about the topic, then find more detailed sources from universities or science publications.

Step 3: Focus on Specific Topics Within the Field

Use your authoritative links to give you direct knowledge. You can spend hours on this step, so remember your specific focus. You don’t have to spend years learning about everything to do with physics; just compile resources talking about dark matter and gain a working knowledge so that you know what the writer(s) may be referring to. Also, don’t confuse topics; dark energy and dark matter are separate topics, for instance. As you’re finding resources, create a list of paraphrased facts that could be included in your piece. Having such a list can help you avoid “fluff” and make the article easier to read.

Step 4: Remove Superlatives and Misleading Statements

You should altogether avoid statements with words such as “most,” “best,” “definite,” or “least” unless you actually know for sure that the statement is backed by fact. Facts should not be re-worded into a misleading statement or plagiarized. Numbers can sometimes speak louder than words, but keep an eye on the wording of specific statistics. For instance, “25% of seniors admitted to smoking an illegal substance” has a different meaning than “25% of seniors have smoked an illegal substance.” Also, be incredibly cautious with any statement that directs someone to do something possibly dangerous. For instance, a step-by-step guide on how to build something should include a safety disclaimer.

Step 5: Continue to Learn More

When you’ve finished your article, you’ve probably completed a lot of research. Read your article again to make sure all of it aligns with what you’ve learned. Fact-check yourself for things that sound strange. Feel free to look up extra facts to enhance your article. After submitting the article, if you know you’re going to be writing about the topic again, spend time researching the topic between articles. This will help you to be able to sit down, do quick research, and write without having to repeat the second step of this list. This can also make you more valuable as an expert.

Stephanie Nolan, an editor for Online Writing Jobs, is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Since college, she's both edited and written film scripts, press releases, fictional stories, and articles. After gaining professional experience with Public Relations, Human Resources, and Recruitment, she discovered OWJ. With her strong marketing background and love of the written word, she now found a great balance while working with online content.

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