How to Research a Topic

This is the time to master the narrow focus of your topic. Become more of an expert than you were. Research should uncover things that surprise you if you dig deep enough. Nail down the facts, look for experts and read what they have published. Hunt for the details that amaze you. Write down your assumptions on the topic—you need to separate fact from myth for yourself as well as for the readers. Address these myths and misunderstandings so the readers learn something new as well.

Don’t allow your assumptions to get in the way of finding deeper truth.

Know your bias and opinions on the topic. Allow yourself to consider the opposing position. You are human. If something has always been done a certain way—question the reasoning behind the tradition. Seek the broader truth. Balance opposing views with an open mind.

SOURCES OF RESEARCH

  • Go to places that gather information. The library. Public records. The Internet. See also: Guide to Reference Books by Constance M. Winchell. How and Where to Look It Up by Robert W. Murphy. The Reader’s Guide to Periodicals. The Oxford-Duden Pictorial English. Never rely on an Internet source alone. People can post any kind of nonsense on the internet.
  • Find the experts in the field. Make a list with contact information. Research the experts, read their work and the work of their critics.
  • Draw on friends, family and colleagues by letting them know what you’re working on.
  • Use technology. Follow the trail of evidence, the paper trail, and electronic trail and the money trail.
  • Professional organizations, clubs, corporations, agencies, consumer groups. Experts on any topic or industry will be part of their peer group.

METHODS OF RESEARCH

love letter to a teacherImmersion— Books, reference materials, Internet sources, movies, pop culture, newspapers, trade journals, government publications, professional associations. Keep a running bibliography of your sources so you can track where you found information you plan to use.

Interview— Always seek more knowledgeable men and women for their input, explanations, insight, trends, quotes, leads and always record interviews. In many states it is illegal to tape a conversation without the other person’s knowledge and consent. I begin taping with a statement that identifies the name of the person in the interview and asking for permission to record the interview. This way I also record the person granting permission. Also ask for permission to give the expert’s phone number to the editor in case of last minute questions or clarifications at press time, or to verify a quote. Transcribe all interviews and submit the transcription with the submission. The act of transcribing will bring subtle quotes to your attention, things you may have missed in the heat of the interview, things that may need follow-up. Be aware that any person you interview has personal interests and bias in play. Watch for the interview subject’s agenda, so that you are not being used to promote the subject’s unspoken cause or purpose. For more on interviewing, see Interviewing Sources.

Fieldwork— What is this place, this job, this person really like? Engage your senses so you can recreate this for the reader. What are the sounds, smells, sights, tastes, and feel of the place? For example: New York City is noisy at every hour of the day. The New Orleans’ French Quarter is noisy in a different way. Many small towns in Florida have oranges along the curbs of intersections. Does the reality of this place or topic differ from the public perception of it? Are there any urban myths related to this? Common misconceptions? Cultural conflicts?

Who would sell a restaurant story without a description of the food? What sounds, smells, sights, emotions are associated with this person, place or thing? Take photos and notes so you can recreate details.

Reasoning— What does the evidence show?  What is fact and folklore? How does perception of the situation affect its resolution or conclusion? What did I learn that shocked, surprised or amused me? What did I learn that I couldn’t have learned without digging deeper? What leads develop from this story for other stories, follow-up or spin offs?

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