We humans are seekers. We nurse an innate craving for experience, revelation, and value. We long to unearth diamonds in the rough, discover hidden treasure, or worse, to uncover the truth.
Unfortunately, when you’re working on a deadline, “the need to know” can really screw you up!
And if you’re “searching” rather than “researching” a story idea, an amorphous investigation can actually get your further away from a defined writing topic.
I know the seduction of the search intimately. There’s a certain gratification in “finding it” on page 12 of a Google search, in parsing the data of a scientific study, and in consulting dusty copies of dog-eared books. The search calls out to you emotionally, promises that a eureka moment is imminent.
But if you’re blogging daily, and not writing “My Struggle,” you might emerge from your zone with an epiphany very different from the one you were seeking. It might go along the lines of: “I don’t know what I’m trying to say.”
Your brain might feel like it’s about to burst, or it might just feel like your browser window looks:
Because the research phase of the writing process is often intertwined with the idea generation and definition phase, it can be a trap for minds that are susceptible to disorder, distraction and tangents (most minds). This can make it hard to really articulate what you’re doing.
Hours can pass, days perhaps.
You have been sucked into the research black hole.
In a selfish effort to avoid this dark place, I’ve put some guardrails around the unwieldy, but (hopefully) productive process by making a method of discovering, developing, and defining ideas.
It’s crucial that you don’t think of your research in a vacuum. It happens in phases throughout your idea development and writing process. While you’ll research most aggressively during the initial stages, research does not end until you’ve written your piece and validated your claims.
The approach below is the one I use for writing blog posts. I’ve included tools you can use to make this very personal process your own.
Phase 1: Read, think, and write as a way of life.
Research begins long before you sit down to write. The best writers are always reading, thinking and writing – they record their reactions to life.
If you’re learning about a new industry, whether it’s for a client or for your own personal edification, the quickest way to master a new topic is to write about it along the way.
For instance, when I first heard Stanford Professor Fei-fei Li’s computer vision Ted talk, I was rapt. I couldn’t believe the possibility of what I was hearing. I wanted to know more, and because I’m a dork, I kind of felt like I should tell other people about it.
Only, you can’t communicate well about something you don’t understand.
Thus began weeks of studying on the side. It wasn’t my main focus, but I did try and direct my attention towards the topic when reading and browsing. I saved articles, took notes, and talked to friends and engineers on my own team. After all that, all I came up with was “3 ways that computer vision will change content marketing forever.” Not exactly revolutionary, but building expertise is a long game.
To master topics by reading and writing about them regularly, these apps may help:
Pocket: is awesome for saving and sharing digital media. Since I’ve started using it, I always have something I want to read for train rides, long lines, and my personal reading time. I hear the tagging is great too, though I haven’t experimented very much with it. (Want to teach me so I can write about it?)
My one wish for Pocket is that I could highlight things and add notes to specific sections of articles. Your best bet for a brain dump is to share it to a friend and record your thoughts in a message. Our CEO, Matt Lovett, is really good at this.
Feedly: This RSS feed lets you check in on your favorite industry blogs and thought leaders each day by building collections around relevant themes or industries. I also like to have a “daily reads” section, which lets me browse my top 15 pubs from across industries. Looking at your news this way brings some much-needed order to the brain.
Evernote: I love the ability to have so many theme specific notebooks and the webclipper plug in that lets me save full articles to notebooks and add notes to them. If you have a good tagging system as well as a routine of searching your own tags, you can save a lot time by reviewing things you’ve already learned. I like the “Context” feature too, which is supposed to automatically pull in relevant information from external news sources, but I just wish it worked better.
Google Docs: Want to take notes on anything anywhere? Over the course of 2 years (2011- 2012) I found it really easy to constantly add to a Google document, which I lazily titled, “everything,” and at one point “basically everything.”
While there’s a real richness to seeing your weeks and months unfurl over hundreds of pages, scroll like, your neuroses expressed in various fonts, sizes, and colors, I recommend using this document for words over pictures. My own file became so unwieldy at over 300 pages that it sometimes wouldn’t load. I said an irony-laden good-bye when I moved to Evernote.
Phase 2: Research to define your topic
If you’re writing professionally, you most likely have an industry, subject area, or beat, and your real research begins when you are narrowing down your topic for a particular piece. On this blog, we talk a lot about extrapolation and synthesis, ways to think big and to combine ideas to help you make connections—here is the phase where these methods come in handy.
Focus your research by asking and imagining. Look for the potential richness in angles.
As I use the tools below, I copy and paste all the irresistible links, quotes, stats and names of people I might want to interview into a master document, usually called “[Broad topic], notes and quotes,” making sure that I include references.
Depending on the topic and timeline, I give myself an hour or more, but I make sure to define the time I intend to spend on research for the type of piece I’m trying to produce.
Google Scholar: Often times, especially if I’m writing about trends or how groups of people behave, I get the feeling that someone much more qualified than I am has actually studied this.
That’s when I go to Google Scholar, where I can search things like “pressure and creativity.” Taking a look at current professional research and dated textbooks gives you a better understanding of context and can help substantiate some of your own thoughts.
Oz: I use our platform during all phases of research, but particularly when I’m looking for unique connections or angles. By searching for specifics within my industry, I get to see loosely connected topics that are likely to spark an idea that I can then make more specific.
Faqfox: This is a fun, simple tool to dig up comments and links within reddit or other forums. Want to know its secret? It’s just pulling the info using Google Advanced Search.
Phase 3: Manage the complexity of your topic
At this point you should pretty much be able to articulate what you are writing about. As William Blundell states convincingly in The Art and craft of Feature Writing,
“A limited tale well told has more impact and persuasiveness than a sweeping story that can’t be adequately illustrated.”
I’ll save my thoughts on thesis statements, nut-graphs and the like for another time, but there are tools and templates that can help you get this crucial step down fast.
Thesis Generator: This tool was developed by the University of Phoenix and can give you a hand coming up with workable thesis statements.
Thesis template: Templates to help you write your these statements abound online. Find the ones that work for you, or make your own.
If you are writing a reported or journalistic style piece you’d probably develop a nut graph. Like a thesis statement, this essential paragraph explains the story’s message, importance and relevance. It’s often how journalists transition out of a lead.
Phase 4: Testing your potential for success
Once I’ve got a pretty good idea what I’ll be writing about and what key words I’ll be using, I go ahead and see who else has written about it, and how well the content performed. Some people check these things right up front and use trending topics to determine what they should write about. I’m not usually one of them.
I use these tools to see what has been done well and I let that influence my execution, but only after I feel like I’ve got something worth saying.
Trendspottr: This tool also uses influencer and trending data, but focuses on drawing insights, identifying trend and making predictions. However, it’s not free at $199/month.
Phase 5: Populate your outline with existing research
Now that you’ve got your defined idea, quickly write your outline, or the main points of your story. If you don’t have your own method, the following templates can help.
Basic blog post : Basic blog post is an easy template that anyone can use.
Complex topics: This tool has a variety of formats to accommodate more in depth topics.
Evernote template: I love that this format considers the importance of personal experiences in the writing process.
Under each main point, sub-topic, or body paragraph, jot a few lines. More importantly copy and paste quotes from your master document, and reference the specific ideas, statistics, or opinions you’ve already gathered from your research.
If this is a reported piece this is when I like to conduct interviews. Having a good foundation already in place will help me keep my interviews focused.
This “research enhanced” outline is going to make it easy for you to write.
Phase 6: Write
Yes, you are correct — this is not technically a research phase. But remember, research does not happen in a vacuum. Writing is your break in between research stages. Turn down the lights, put on some a focus mix on Spotify, and focus only on getting the words out. Be comforted by the fact that you will have an opportunity to fortify your writing with additional research in the next phase.
Tools for this section may include:
Brain: We are all different. Know your own command center.
Moleskine: Are you analog? Cool. Moleskine even has an Evernote edition that makes it easier to take picture of your written pages and make them digital. Although the product review states that the text recognition software makes it easy to search your handwritten notes on your Evernote app, this has never worked for me. Could it be my hand-writing?
iA Writer: Many of my friends and colleagues swear by iA writer. Its main selling point is the “focused writing feature,” where surrounding text fades into the background, evading your inner editor. The program also syncs across devices and has an accessible app, which makes it easy to jot down your reactions wherever you are.
Spotify: Amusingly, the “Focus” category includes playlists like “White Noise,” “Epic All-Nighter” “Indie Folk for Focus,” and “Study Vibes.” Choose your poison.
Anti-Social: I’m a die-hard. Block specific sites and make social shut-up.
Phase 7: Validate and Fortify
Fact: Validating your claims with data and fortifying your arguments are still part of research. You know what some magazines call fact-checkers? Researchers. This is how I approach the true end of the research process.
Am I making a claim that makes me slightly uncomfortable? That’s the first one I’m going to go check out. I’ll check out all the same studies, public data, and check with any experts to see if this holds water.
Chances are, if I haven’t made the case well enough to convince myself, my reader isn’t going to buy it either. Back your claims with data.
If you haven’t double-checked the sources of your statistics be sure and do that now as part of your own fact-checking process. Find the original reports and make sure you agree with the conclusion.
I used hyper focused research tools during this phase:
Google Advanced Search: Find exactly what you’re looking for by searching specific sites with Google. You can limit your search to specific sites like the CDC, for example, or to all sites that end in “.gov.” If you’re looking for records, or images, try searching for specific file types.
Reverse image search: Fact-check images and determine where they’ve been published and if they are real.
Have you found what you were looking for, or are you still on the hunt? Hopefully this method will help you avoid the Research Black Hole and understand how to use tools to improve your research, idea definition and idea development process.
Remember, a great idea is one that can be developed and supported by insightful research.
Do you have any other tools or methods you like for the first steps of content creation process? Let us know on Twitter (@ideasbyoz) or through our website. And if you’re curious about using Oz to maximize your research and idea generation process, demo our product.