I’m not an expert about every topic under the sun. Anyone who claims to be is generally the type of person who gets the “know-it-all”label slapped on them, which is not exactly a compliment.
Despite my inability to know everything about absolutely every topic imaginable, I am asked to write material that may be way out of my comfort zone on a regular basis. So what happens when I’m asked to write about the latest fashion trend, or the best ways to prevent dental decay (neither being topics in which I am well versed)? I do what any good writer would do. I conduct some good old-fashioned research.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been in college. But when I was being trained to be a quality journalist, one of the first things I learned was how to research a topic. I’m not entirely sure the art of research is adequately taught to students these days, as I have encountered more than a fair share of professionals who have no idea where to start when faced with handling a client outside of their range of interests or expertise.
So what is the best way to research a topic in order to be able to most effectively represent your client’s needs?
In this day and age, it’s tempting (and incredibly easy) to let our fingers do the searching….on the internet. It takes more than a few keywords and a 10-second search to find legitimate information about a topic. While the internet is an amazing tool and can certainly make life easier, using it comes with a caveat emptor – not all sites are created equal. Just because it is on the internet and comes up during a Google search does not mean it is legitimate or accurate. Wikipedia is a perfect example of this kind of information. Anyone can create a Wikipedia entry about any topic they wish. And while there are some Wikipedia entries that are very informative and accurate, there are just as many that make claims without any research or documents to back them up.
This doesn’t mean using the internet to research a topic can’t be done. It just has to be done with caution. The best kinds of sources on the internet are what are known as hard research sources. An example of a hard research source is a scholarly paper. If it includes facts that can be substantiated, figures and statistics that are well documented and measurable evidence throughout, then it can be considered a hard research source and generally deemed to be reliable.
Every industry generally has a publication or two dedicated solely to it. There are publications about landscaping, home improvement, beauty and fashion and even trash and recycling. Finding these niche publications and reading up on the industry can provide valuable insight that later can be used to effectively assist your clients.
In addition to hard research sources, finding experts in the field in which you are researching also is a good resource. If I were writing a blog posting for a client about dental cleanings and why they are important, calling a few local dentists to garner information about the cleaning process would be a good first start to composing an informative and accurate blog post.
Sometimes even the best research can still leave a professional unprepared to properly represent a client. When that occurs, it is best to be upfront and honest. There is no quicker way to ruin your reputation than to press on with representing a client when you know you are not knowledgeable enough about their industry to properly meet their needs.
Shari L. Berg is the owner/operator of The Write Reflection, and a writing professional for 25 years.