On Writing Well: How to Research Your Writing

Pia Chatterjee

One of the hardest things about writing is research.  Beyond creating polished writing, you also want to make sure that you know what you are writing about. And this can be hard work.

Sometimes the research is simple. If you are writing about a recipe, all you have to do is cook the meal again to estimate measurements and cooking times.

But some research is a lot harder. For example, if you are writing about a character who lives in London or San Francisco, and you’ve never been there, it’s impossible to spring for a ticket, just for the sake of your story. This is when knowing how to research  (for free!) becomes valuable.

Social media: Say your story requires you to know how much a pound of rice costs in India, or the name of the best school in Israel. These sorts of small factoids are best researched via social media. Once, in the pre-Facebook era, when I wanted to know how much an underage illegal worker could earn in Calcutta in the early ‘90s, I asked my mother who then interviewed someone who might know the answer. Today, I would spare her the trouble, and ask my friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter, to essentially crowdsource my query.

Internet: The Internet has made life incredibly easy for researchers. Wikipedia is a gold mine of information that I hope every writer employs. For writers who are working on events that occurred several years ago, newspapers like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal also have archives that can offer details of daily news as far back as ten years ago, and maybe used as a resource. If you are writing about a far away place, and want to know a bit more about the topography or street details of the place, you could easily employ Google’s very helpful Google earth or Google street view.

Libraries and librarians: While a lot of people believe that librarians only check out and shelve books, librarians are actually trained to answer complicated questions and help you find the resources for research. The local librarian is possibly the best free resource that many writers overlook.

Trying it yourself: There are certain things that you have to actually experience before you can write about it. To write effectively on recipes, DIY projects, sports, etc., you do have to actually cook the meal, finish the project, or engage in the sport. Without experiencing these, your writing will sound superficial and not engage  your readers in the way you’d like it to.

5 thoughts on “On Writing Well: How to Research Your Writing

  1. Research is not only important for non-fictions but also significant in fictional work. These days we don’t usually have to travel around the world to do research. Research is the background for your ideas.

    I do lots of research for my creative and non-creative writings. But what is frustrating is in the name of research many people also copy others works.

  2. This is great advice. I also, research before or while writing a story or article. Most if not all successful people do so their piece will be authentic. I have had some people tell me they write in the text capsule as it comes to them. I could never do that. I like my facts together.
    As Vinaya said, research is not a license to go copy/paste crazy and duplicate another person’s work. I have seen that too.
    Thanks for an informative “On Writing Well” Hub.

  3. Agreed. I appreciate works of fiction in which the author has researched her setting well enough to portray it as if she lives there and was a first-person observer to the action. Likewise, if one of the characters has an odd or very specialized hobby or profession, they become much more real if the author has done her homework and is able to drop in tidbits about that area of expertise.
    The recently late Lilian Jackson Braun, author of “The Cat Who…” series, was masterful at this.

    On the other hand, I must disagree with relying overmuch on Wikipedia. It is a user-contribution site, and as such, much of its data can be called into question as either subjective or outright inaccurate.
    In fact, those of us who also write at Demand Media Studios can tell you it is a black-listed site, prohibted from being used for researching DMS articles, for the very reasons I’ve stated.
    It can, however, be a good springboard, giving you clues as to where else to look, by perhaps finding other terms or keywords for which to search, as well as looking for outbound links to more original sources for the Wiki material.

  4. Research is key to success in many things and writing is definitely one of them. I kind of don’t think of Wikipedia as much because it isn’t always right when you are really dwelling into a research item and it isolates you to rely on it as the only source when numerous sites are helpful as well. I still think this article is great though, because it is really insightful for the those wishing to seek a profession in writing. Libraries are still great ways to do research because most records go way back and some of it are still their such as a newspaper from the 1960s or so to speak. Experience is also very important because its what shapes your life and what makes it that much more worth living. Nice one Pia!

  5. The web is an amazing research resource, and I’m delighted that it’s grown into the Library of Alexandria we dreamed it would be, allowing us to learn about and write on things we wouldn’t even have known to look up before.

    However, let me offer one caution and suggestion.

    In the early years of the web, before it was legal to make money on it, there was a big push to take our collective knowledge and information and get it onto the new frontier called the web. These were the heady days of NCSA Mosaic as the main browser and Webcrawler and Lycos as the main search engines.

    People who came to the web later tend to assume all the information we need is already on the web. A tremendous amount of it is! However, we have to remember two things. First, Wikipedia and most of the web was uploaded by people like us. We make mistakes, we don’t have the complete picture, and not all of us are experts. (I’m appalled to find a term paper I wrote in 1990 and uploaded in 1992 still appearing as an authoritative source cited by numerous websites). Second, there have been a few thousand years of literate human history, and there are still huge gaps on which the web’s information is scanty or poor.

    My point: So many people are going to Wikipedia and all the well-trodden sources of the web for information, then repackaging it. There is a huge untapped potential here for conscientious writers with some knowledge of library research (remember doing that)? If you can write sound, cogent articles drawing on research and information not already found on the web, then you become the source that turns up when people search for information. One cannot write web articles like term papers, so you have to change your writing style, but you can serve up good information others do not. For footnotes/bibliography, instead use embedded Amazon links to cite your sources.

    I don’t use this approach often enough, because it means going to the library. However, I think it’s an infinite untapped niche that too many of us forget, when we reach for the ease and convenience of existing online sources.

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