A Freelance Writer’s Guide to Research
Many freelance writers develop niches in specific industries or types of content in which they gain a significant amount of expertise. Healthcare, personal finance, and travel are a few popular niches. Others become specialists in writing blog posts or white papers.
Wherever your freelance writing career takes you, being able to write fact-driven pieces will make you a more valuable writer. Learning how to research for writing an article is key to your success as a freelance writer.
Why Research Is Your Friend
Many writers find doing research difficult and tedious. I know, it’s not exactly the creative part of the project. Think of conducting research as going on a treasure hunt to find nuggets of information. This makes your piece worth reading all the way through and you’ll begin to find researching more enjoyable. A well-researched piece that gains audience engagement or increases customer leads is not only self-satisfying but career-building.
It’s career-building because incorporating unique, timely, and relevant research helps create unique content. And, when so much content is launched day in and day out, your well-researched and valuable content will differentiate you from the masses.
Many writers dislike research. Not only does research take a lot of time, it often leads us down a rabbit hole. A writer can spend more time researching than writing the article or whitepaper itself. Before you hit the panic button, use this guide to help you develop the research skills necessary to write about any topic requested and accepted.
8 Best Practices for Effective Research
Conducting research for your freelance writing is not quite as simple as just googling. There’s so much information to wade through on Google and it can be tricky to know what facts and figures are trustworthy. You’ll first want to create an outline for your piece so you can decide what type of data, quotes, or information you’re looking for.
Research is basically the same as finding an answer to a question. If you have an outline or structure set up for your article, it becomes easier to see where you might have questions that can best be answered by research. Pinpointing the information, quotes, or data you need will save you from conducting too broad a research effort and will go a long way toward saving you time to write.
1. Conduct a Keyword Search
Sometimes assignments come with a client’s keyword preferences. But it is not always the case. When writing for SEO purposes (and when we are not writing for SEO), finding and using the right keywords matters. Put yourself in the target audience’s mind to think about how they are most likely to search for the topic.
Keywords will help keep your writing in focus.
An increasing number of searches are voice searches now. Voice searches differ because they are phrases that sound more like how people talk. Imagine asking Siri or Alexa a question. Here are some excellent keyword research tools:
- Semrush is great for showing keywords the competition ranks well for.
- Soovle shows suggested keyword ideas from Google, YouTube, Bing, Amazon & more.
- Ahrefs Keywords Explorer gives you added information about each keyword such as search volume and what site is #1 for a specific keyword.
- Google Keyword Planner is a must for research simply because its keyword database comes straight from Google.
2. Analyze the Competition
Ask who your client’s competitors are and check out their content. Can you discover what keywords are working for them? What topics are they concentrating their content on? This type of research will help you benefit from what is working for them and will help your content appear on the SERPs (search engine results pages) as theirs. Analyzing the competition will enable you to create content that will differentiate the client.
Semrush ranks at the top for this job because of the number of tools they have. Use their Traffic Analytics tool to compare your web traffic against your five top competitors. Their traffic Journey tab lets you discover where competitors fall behind so you can take advantage of their weaknesses. You can even find the domains that are bringing your competitors their traffic by using their Backlink gap.
3. Find Credible Sources
Credibility is what’s most important in the research process. Whether you’re writing an article for a blog or a technical white paper, the depth of research might be different but it all needs to come from credible sources.
Sources for finding solid facts and figures include:
- Government sites have a wealth of data online including sites such as Data.gov, USA.gov, or if you need more regional information try state or city resources like ny.gov. You can also access government data relating to specific topics. For health-related information, try sites like Centers for Disease Control or the National Institutes for Health.
- National organizations exist for almost every topic under the sun. Nonprofits such as the American Cancer Society or the Pew Charitable Trust.
- Industry associations such as American Chemistry Council, American Society of Composers, or Retail Industry Leaders Association can be helpful resources.
- Trade publications that cover a specific industry are great resources for looking at trends and current news about brands. Examples of trade publications include Aviation Week and Design News.
- Trustworthy consumer publications such as The New York Times, Fast Company, or Psychology Today are reliable sources.
- Market research organizations conduct studies and surveys on many topics from politics and social trends to technology and religion. Gallup, B2B International, and the Pew Research Center are two recognized opinion research firms. Industry-related research firms compile data within their industry. Examples are Escalent which covers travel and tourism and Zonda which covers the housing market.
- Online sites that use statistics, data, and charts in their own content are useful sources such as Statista and Retail Dive.
4. Use Google to Your Advantage
Depending on how common a topic your writing assignment is, doing a straightforward Google search can yield thousands of search results that will take forever to comb through and evaluate for credibility and usefulness. Here are a few hacks to help you get the most out of Google.
If you want a more complete listing of advanced Google search commands, visit Lifewire.
- If you want to search for an exact phrase use quotation marks. This comes in handy when you need to attribute a quote to the right person. “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” Good advice provided by Walt Disney!
- If you want to find information from a specific website add the domain so your search looks like: Italy, site: escalent.com
- Use And and Or to expand or narrow your searches. For example, if you want to find the benefits of getting a degree online or on-campus you can search online and on campus. Google will then show you results containing both. If you search online or on campus degree benefits, you’ll get results that contain either of those keywords, but not necessarily both.
5. Choose Only Recently Published Information
We live in a fast-paced world where topics and industries evolve quickly and information becomes outdated in record time. Don’t forget to check the dates on all sources and facts to make sure your research is current.
6. Trace Information to Its Source Whenever Possible
It’s always best to use a primary source so if you’ve seen a great quote or statistic in an article, trace it to its original source and use that source in your writing.
Secondary Source: CNN reports that a study conducted by Acme Institute found that freelance writers drink more coffee than doctors.
Primary Source: A study conducted by Acme Institute shows that freelance writers drink three times more coffee than doctors.
By tracing to the primary source you might find that the secondary source used the information that best suited their article, but the primary source has additional information that suits your piece more. It is also a good way to fact-check.
7. Avoid These Types of Sources
Wikipedia is a good place to start if you are writing about a topic that is totally new to you because it can provide you with a general overview and understanding. However, it should never be used as a source because it is written by anonymous volunteers whose knowledge can sometimes be inaccurate or plagiarized. On top of that, it will then get altered by others sometimes compounding inaccuracies.
Other types of information to be dubious of are articles, white papers, and studies conducted by companies or organizations that have a stake in the topic they are writing about. An article written about why Italy should be the number one travel destination for all Americans who have never been to Europe written by the Italian Travel Commission (a made-up commission) can easily spin information to suit its purpose of increasing tourism to Italy.
8. Know When You Have Researched Enough
It stands to reason that a technology white paper or a feature article on the economic impact of climate change on coastal cities would require more substantiated facts and therefore more research than a 300-word blog post on the best pizza in Savannah, Georgia. Not only are white papers and feature articles longer than blog posts, but technology and economic issues require more data. The topic of the best pizza, on the other hand, is more subjective than a data-driven one.
One good practice for how to research an article might be to gather enough to begin fleshing out the content. As you go, you might find that you want to add a stat here or a quote there. Then you can more quickly find that specific piece of information rather than continue to do broader research.
Honing Your Research Skills Over Time
How to research for writing an article is an essential skill for a freelance writer. And, the more research you do, the more adept you’ll become. The bottom line is that readers expect you to know what you are writing about and are counting on your expertise to enhance their knowledge.
Deborah was the kid who would rather write book reports and essays than play ball during recess. Although she didn’t score many points with her peers, it did lead to her career creating content for TV, radio, print and new media for companies as varied as Dooney& Bourke, Panera Breads, Visa, SUNY Ulster and Hudson Valley Federal Savings Bank.
She is also a principal of small packages – a digital design company, and past partner/marketing director of whatis.com, the world’s foremost reference on information technology. And, her love of food enabled her to become a contributing editor of both Gourmet Retailer and Food Distribution Magazines.
Deborah has a bachelor degree in fine art from the Hartford Art School, University of Hartford and a masters in higher education administration from Stony Brook University. When she’s not writing, her love of quilting, furry animals, friends, and family sustains her.