How to conduct research and use it to make your writing better in 3 steps

Research is a crucial part of any well-written piece. It provides detail, backs up arguments, and validates the authorial perspective. Good research, and, consequently, good writing preparation, also makes it much easier to actually do the writing, as you’ve gathered the necessary tools.

But collecting research can be daunting. Back in college, and early in my career, I remember conducting research for papers or marketing projects and being overwhelmed. It’s difficult to know where to start, and once you dive into the sheer magnitude of information on the Internet it can seem like more of a burden than a delight. How do you know what sources can be trusted? How do you narrow down your field of focus? And what do you do if you can’t part with a great quote?

Now that I’ve had way more life and work experience, and am part of an experienced communications team, I’ve learned that research doesn’t need to be an insurmountable hurdle.

Below are some tips to help you gain confidence in writing (especially if you’re not a subject- matter expert), find quality sources, get organized, bolster an argument, and weave in research with narrative without overzealous signposting or repetition.

Survey the landscape

One of the best things a writer can do before putting finger to keyboard is to get a sense of what has already been said about their topic. Writing a report on earthquakes and their effect on life in the Pacific Northwest? Read. All. You. Can. While time might be a restraint, you shouldn’t undervalue this step in the writing process.

Spending a few hours (or days, time allowing) catching up on what others have written will provide you with a solid understanding of the topic as well as a sense of what themes are worn thin. This knowledge will help you determine if your argument needs to be tweaked or discover a fresh angle. One of the skills of a great writer is seeing where the opportunities are to enter the conversation with something new to say. Research can help you write with conviction. Later, when you submit the article for review to another editor or the client, you can ask intelligent questions about areas you know need more substance.

Google is a good resource to begin your reading binge, but Google Scholar offers easier access to scholarly literature. Google Scholar also shows you how many times a source has been cited, which is a good start for a BS detector—the more citations, the more likely it’s a credible piece. While it’s not the only metric for deciding if an article is valid, it’s a decent indicator. Another way to vet research is to look at who wrote the article—a highly credentialed individual or a potential basement dweller with very few publications.  

Google Scholar can point you to academic research (such as industry journals) that doesn’t usually come up, or is harder to find, when you use a standard Google search. Scholar also allows you to filter by date and publication type, which may be useful depending on the project. Some of the content is gated, but you can access enough for free, and abstracts are available to see if something is worth your time to pursue later.

Some other good go-to sites for research are Harvard Business Review MIT Sloan Management ReviewPew Research, and Gallup. If you find a great article on one of these sites, and they list surveys and studies, don’t be afraid to follow the links to discover more sources and information. This act also helps you not set your research net too wide and get overwhelmed by searching everything to do with, say, “earthquakes.” Just don’t use all the same sources as someone else. This approach is an easy way to accidentally draw all the same conclusions—a major don’t.

Place your research in an outline

Hopefully by surveying the landscape of information, you’ve narrowed your research focus and even found some sources. Next comes the outline.

I try to make my outlines as complete as possible. A thorough outline can give you a sense of how the narrative will flow and where there might be gaps in logic or flow. Not to mention that this step will make drafting much easier. When building an outline, avoid fragmented phrases that may be confusing when reviewing or beginning to draft; lay out your argument, find where background information will reside, and, maybe, take a stab at the conclusion. These steps are the foundations for peppering in your research and deciding where to build out examples.

A word of caution: outlines don’t mean that your arguments are set in stone. As you set out to fill in research gaps—or areas that seem weak without additional evidence—you may find you need to adjust arguments or the placement of content. And that’s okay. Better now than later.

Edit your research

It can be tempting, having conducted such thorough research, to pile in everything you know or everything mildly interesting when discussing the background of a particular topic. Next thing you know you’re 1,000 words in and your thesis is MIA.

In writing we have to murder our darlings, and sometimes we have to do the same with research. It’s okay to include too much detail, too many data points, too many examples in a first go at something—so long as, after the first draft is done, you or a practiced editor go through and remove any pieces that don’t contribute to or illustrate an argument. Be ruthless for the cause of your argument.

Shadow quotes or research are big contenders to be edited or cut, as in this fictitious example,

“Seismologists estimate that the next earthquake that will hit the Northwest will create devastation on a scale that the US has never seen before rating a 9.1 in magnitude. Indeed, researcher Dr. Richard Evans says, ‘We know that the next quake to hit this area will be on a level we haven’t seen before.’”

This quote provides no new information. In fact, it could be removed without detracting from the narrative.

Weaving in research with quotes is often an area where writers are tempted to include all the efforts of their labor. However, quotes in research should be reserved for times when a new insight is added or for information that cannot be summarized without taking away some of the meaning, or impact. Quotes work alongside your research to create a seamless narrative that draws in the reader.

Consider this example from a 2015 article from The New Yorker called “The Really Big One,” by Kathryn Schulz. This article discusses an earthquake that will devastate the coastal Pacific Northwest region of the United States at an unknown point in the future.

“The devastation in Japan in 2011 was the result of a discrepancy between what the best science predicted and what the region was prepared to withstand. The same will hold true in the Pacific Northwest—but here the discrepancy is enormous. ‘The science part is fun,’ Goldfinger says. ‘And I love doing it. But the gap between what we know and what we should do about it is getting bigger and bigger, and the action really needs to turn to responding. Otherwise, we’re going to be hammered. I’ve been through one of these massive earthquakes in the most seismically prepared nation on earth. If that was Portland’—Goldfinger finished the sentence with a shake of his head before he finished it with words. ‘Let’s just say I would rather not be here.’”

Could Schulz have summarized the gist of Goldfinger’s quote? Sure. But his wording, and authority, make a bigger impact on the reader. Plus, it added color to the narrative beyond simply saying “the discrepancy is big.”

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These tips are by no means a complete list of things to consider when setting out to research (and write) about a subject. But they are good starting points for viewing the research process as a manageable (dare I say enjoyable) challenge—not something to avoid at all costs.

Rachel Henry

Rachel is an editorial associate at Leff. Her background as marketer in the startup world means she understands the term “ordered chaos.” She works with the editorial team to help shape ideas into valuable and insightful content, while keeping a sharp eye out to ensure style guide consistency.

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