Dear WordCount: As part of my New Year’s resolution to be more productive, I need suggestions for how to be more efficient when I’m doing background research for stories. What do you suggest? — Research Rookie
A story is only as good as the background research that goes into it, whether that’s finding trends to base queries on, identifying just the right experts to interview or finding subjects who personify the topic you’re writing about.
Doing a good job of digging up information for an assignment doesn’t have to mean spending more time.
Here’s how you can research assignments and be efficient:
1. Set up alerts.
Once you get an assignment, use Google News Alerts to find and save stories on subjects related to what you’re writing about. You can set up alerts to deliver stories as they’re published, once a day or once a week. You can set up News Alerts to only grab news stories or look for anything that pops up on the web, including blog posts and videos. I probably have a half dozen or more News Alerts set up at any given time pulling in background research for upcoming stories. I file everything that comes in into separate Gmail folders that I set up for individual stories. I don’t look through the results until I’m ready to start reporting and setting up interviews.
2. Use other online tools.
Use web-based tools like Evernote or Spundge to set up notebooks that you can dump background research into as you find it. Some writers use Evernote or Spundge to save research, clips, interview notes, URLs and other data, so when the times comes to start writing, they’ve got everything they need in one place.
3. Make research do double duty.
If you write about the same subjects on a regular basis, make interviews do double duty. When I was writing a weekly blog post about job hunting and career reinvention, I’d talk to career coaches on a regular basis. I’d ask the questions I needed for story #1 at the beginning of the interview, and at the end, tack on a couple questions about story #2 (and sometimes even story #3). Do that enough, and when the time comes to write stories #2 and #3, the bulk of your interviews could already be in the can.
4. Get help.
In the past year, I hired a virtual assistant to help with administrative tasks. One of those tasks was looking for experts, organizations and websites I could use as story sources. It saved me the time it would have taken to find those sources myself. With that basic info in hand, I set up and did interviews or scoured the websites for the information I needed for my story. Other writers I know use virtual assistants to schedule interview appointments, as well as for non-research related tasks such as billing and filing. The one caveat with hiring an assistant: it has to be cost effective. If you bill $50 or $75 an hour, it’s worth it to pay someone $10 or $15 an hour to do some types of work so you can maximize your time, because you’ll still earn a profit on the final product. But if you’re only making $25 or $30 an hour, you’re cutting deeper into your profits, and might be better off doing the work yourself.
5. Don’t shortchange how much you research.
Cutting corners on research won’t pay off in the long run. If you don’t really dive into a subject – reading what else has been written, interviewing sources, going to meetings or conferences, etc. – to get to the heart of the subject, it shows. Your writing will lack details, examples and quotes that make it interesting and informative. Editors can tell. You’ll end up having assignments kicked back to you with questions and requests for additional facts, color or detail.
When you’ve done enough research that it feels like the topic is oozing out of your skin, or when you start dreaming about it, or wake up writing it in your head, you know you’re ready to move onto the next step. The writing should go faster, and you’ll have all the details your editor – and readers – will want.
[Wikicommons photo from U.S. Marine Corps]