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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Research Faster, Make More Money: How to Find Facts Fast

           Hi, readers...I apologize for not getting a post up yesterday. I'm in the midst of updating Six-Figure Freelancing and am finishing another book for brand-new freelancers, and will announce them soon! In the meantime, the topic of today's post is research--and how to spend less time doing it 

            I used to write for a magazine that was known for making some eye-catching claims in its articles. My editor assigned a piece with a planned cover line claiming, “Boost your Metabolism by 200% or More with our Fat-Blasting Diet!” When she assigned the piece, she explained that the piece would be based on a new study, which had found that eating hot peppers, which contain capsaicin, could boost your metabolism.
Sounded good—until I actually read the study. First, it was conducted over just a few weeks. Second, it included a small number of subjects who were force-fed huge amounts of hot peppers—far more than people would eat in the course of a month, let alone a meal. And third, the subjects of the study were rats. As far as I’m concerned this study didn’t prove anything--except that it sucks to be a rat.  
            When you read lines like “Studies say…,” “According to recent research…,” or “Statistics suggest…,” that research comes from somewhere. As a freelancer, you have to research article topics and report on that research. It helps to know how to find the info you need—and how to make sense of it--as quickly as possible.
            Get the Big Picture  
            If I’m covering a subject new to me, my first stop is often Don’t laugh! Last year I was assigned a piece on interventional radiology, or IR. A quick stop at described that IR is “A subspecialty of radiology in which minimally invasive procedures are performed using image guidance” like angiograms. Guess what? I actually knew what IR was—I just didn’t know that’s what it was called. A little more background reading and I was reading to start my in-depth reporting.
Find the Source, Find the Fact—and Stat 
            Often simply finding the right experts is all I need to locate the facts or statistics I’m looking for. One of my favorite sources is Help a Reporter Out, a/k/a “HARO.” You send an email request detailing what you’re looking for, and HARO sends it to thousands of subscribers. This is a great way to locate people who are otherwise hard to buttonhole (say someone who’s been in three traffic accidents in the last year or a researchers working on an as-of-yet unpublished study).
Profnet offers a similar service for freelancers. You can search an extensive database of experts or submit a query specifying what you're looking for ("a master gardener with experience in English roses”) that's sent to PR agencies, universities, hospitals, and experts.
            In addition to ProfNet and Haro, to locate sources, look for relevant associations. In addition to Google, check out the three-volume Encyclopedia of Associations, which will be found on reserve at your local library; it contains 20,000 U.S.-based organizations that cover everything from medicine to gardening to hobbies to sports to charity groups.
Then contact the association, ask for the media affairs or public relations department, and explain what you’re looking for. That person often can suggest a member who can provide you with the information you need—or may have it on hand.
In addition to governmental websites, which maintain statistics on a variety of subjects, universities often have data and statistics you need. As with an association, ask for the public affairs or media relations department and request a referral to an appropriate faculty member to interview.
Don’t overlook book authors who’ve written on the topic you’re covering. Check on Amazon for possible authors, Google their backgrounds, and make contact through their publisher’s PR department. After you’ve identified your sources, contact them to arrange your interviews
            Background research is a necessary task for much of your work--just make sure you don’t get bogged down with it. After all, you get paid for the words you actually write, not for the time you spend researching.
            **This post was drawn from Secret 27: Find facts fast, from Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success. Readers, what do you think? Do you have any time-slashing research techniques you'd like to share? 


  1. So, Kelly, I'm very interested to know how you responded to your editor after you read the study. S Jensen

  2. Great question! She acted like it was no big deal, and to play up the results of it and ignore the fact it was a rat study. It was actually one of the last stories I did for this market, which was focused more on attention-getting cover lines than truthful reporting/writing.