There are many different types of freelance writing jobs, but one of the most common is article writing. Whether this be blog posts, feature articles or news stories, there's always one thing in common when it comes to freelance articles: they all involve research.
We've covered tips for researching your novel... Now it's time to learn about researching as a freelance writer!
While you may have established your own freelance writing niche, chances are at least some of the time you'll be writing about topics on which you're not an expert. In these cases, some real research is required.
Contrary to what people might think, it's not as easy as just Googling a few keywords and tapping out an article from there. There's much more involved – and there are some valuable research tips and tricks that can make the article-writing process a whole lot easier.
Read on for our six essential guidelines for researching freelance articles!
1. Verify your sources
The first and perhaps most important guideline is to always verify the sources you use when compiling an article.
There's nothing worse than submitting a piece only to have readers (or your client) pointing out mistakes or inaccuracies. So whenever you're using information or quotes from other sources, be extra-sure they're reliable, accurate and trustworthy.
This point is particularly important to keep in mind when using online sources. Remember that anyone can post anything online these days, and that the internet is littered with unreliable information!
As a general guideline, look for sources that have the following qualities:
- Recently published. A source that is, say, ten years old might contain outdated information as compared to one that was published within the last year. It's often best to stick to the most recent stuff you can find, especially online.
- Reputable author, publisher or platform. Look carefully at the origin of the source. Is it a website, publisher or 'expert' you've never heard of? If so, it's worth doing a little extra research to ensure the source is reputable. You'll usually be safe with government and educational sources, but others such as online news sites and blogs might require more thorough vetting.
- Well-written. It's relatively safe to say that if a source (especially online) is riddled with spelling and grammar errors, it's likely to contain factual errors as well.
- Can be corroborated with other sources. If you've found the same information in multiple sources, that's generally a good indicator that it's reliable, provided it adheres to all the above qualities as well.
Depending on the format and style of your piece, it's a good idea to provide references or links to your verified sources throughout or at the end of your article.
2. Use a multi-resource approach
In today's digital world, it can be easy to forget that there are other sources of information beyond the internet. But when you're researching freelance articles, it helps to take on a multi-resource approach where possible.
Venture out from behind your computer screen and consult other sources: books, magazines, journals, documentaries, etc. Your local library is your friend! And don't forget that people can be resources, too – more on that below.
However, as freelancer Carol Tice points out, there is such a thing as too much research...
Do you drum up a book’s worth of research for every 750-word article you write? ... This turns the writing process into a time-sucking nightmare, as you have way too much material to juggle and have to make painful decisions to leave out interesting stuff."
Weigh up the type and length of article, as well as the amount you're being paid for it, before launching into a full-blown all-avenues research session. The multi-resource approach might not be needed for shorter, less comprehensive articles; save it for your more in-depth pieces.
3. Try some Google search hacks
While we do recommend a multi-resource approach, there's no denying that the humble search engine is often a freelance writer's best friend. The whole online world is at your fingertips with Google – but are you using it to its full potential?
You might not be aware of some of the handy search hacks you can use with Google. Try out the following next time you're diving into some research...
- Use quotation marks to search for exact phrases. For example, if you want to search for an exact quote to attribute its source, add quotation marks when you type it into Google: "That's one small step for man".
- Search for results from one specific website using site:[insert domain]. For example, searching "freelance writer" site:writersedit.com would bring up all results with that exact phrase from Writer's Edit!
- Use AND/OR commands to narrow down or broaden your searches. For example, if you're researching the benefits of cryptocurrencies and you search Bitcoin AND Ethereum benefits, Google will only show you results containing both the words 'Bitcoin' and 'Ethereum'. If you search Bitcoin OR Ethereum benefits, you'll see results containing either of those keywords, but not necessarily both.
There are plenty more Google search hacks you can use, so jot down the ones you find most handy and keep a reference list nearby when researching freelance articles.
4. Talk to people
As we mentioned above, there are more sources of information than just the internet... And one of the best sources you can find when researching freelance articles is a real live person.
Sometimes it's necessary to seek first-hand information by reaching out to real people. Whether this is for a formal interview, a casual chat or just a quick question, the direct human insight can really make an article shine.
Search online or ask around for the best people to contact about a particular topic. When you've found someone you want to reach out to, send them a polite email explaining who you are, what you're writing about, and why you'd like to talk to them.
If you organise an in-person or over-the-phone interview, here are a few tips...
- Prepare adequately. Draw up a specific list of questions you want to ask to keep you on track throughout the conversation. It also helps to find out what you can about the person so you have some background information to go on. At the end of the conversation, ask if there's anything you haven't touched on that they'd like to share.
- Focus on listening rather than talking. It sort of goes without saying, but the interview should consist mostly of the other person talking! Listen carefully to what they're saying and never interrupt.
- Record the interview (with permission). This can help you stay more focused during the actual conversation, as you won't be madly scribbling notes the whole time. You can listen back later and jot down the most important insights, as well as direct quotes.
5. Use your research to form an article outline
So you've finished the researching stage! Congrats. But before you jump right in and start writing, it helps to outline your article using the research you've done so far.
Creating a rough outline or plan for your article has many benefits. It provides a solid structure for your piece; it makes things less overwhelming by breaking down your article into small sections you can complete one at a time; and it ensures you won't leave out any of the valuable research you've done.
Your rough plan might look something like the following:
- Main point 1
- Supporting point 1
- Supporting point 2
- Main point 2
- Supporting point 1
- Supporting point 2
Under each of these headings, jot down notes about the aspects of your research you plan to use in that particular section. Then you can start to write in earnest, using your outline to guide you through the process.
6. Keep your research organised
When you're regularly researching freelance articles – especially if you're completing multiple articles at the same time – things can get a little overwhelming.
For this reason, it's important to keep your research organised. This is especially true for longer, more in-depth pieces that require more research.
Here are a few tips for keeping things organised:
- Use folders to organise your research. You might like to create a master folder for each article you're writing, then create sub-folders within it for different aspects of the topic, or different formats of research (e.g. online articles, interviews, etc.). Keeping everything in neatly labelled folders will make it easier to sort through and access all your research.
- Remove any excess/unused files. When you first start researching, you'll probably save anything and everything that seems relevant to the topic. Once you've narrowed it down to the information you'll actually be using, get rid of anything else to reduce clutter.
- Separate current and completed work. Have one 'current' folder for the articles you're currently working on, and one 'archive' folder for recently completed articles. You never know – some past research might come in handy one day for a future article!
- Back up your work and research. Cloud systems like Google Drive or Dropbox are handy organisational tools for freelance writers that allow you to save a backup copy of all your documents.
What are your best tips and techniques for researching freelance articles? Share with us in the comments!