3 Easy Research Steps for Freelance Writers
You’ve come up with a great idea to pitch to a magazine, found your target market, and are ready to write your pitch. Then reality sets in – the raw idea may be great, but it just isn’t enough to create a full query. Here are 3 easy research steps you can take to finish your project more quickly.
First: slow down and take a deep breath. You don’t necessarily have to spend hours on boring research to get a query out. Don’t think you have to memorize facts and figures, trace years of development, or learn difficult concepts.
I’ve worked out a great process that will help you get your research, draft, and finished pitch written in no time. I recently used this method to write a pitch in about 2 hours – for a complicated subject that I knew nothing about. Less than 24 hours after I submitted the query, I was hired to write the feature.
Want to know my secret to ridiculously easy research? Read on, dear freelancer.
Where to Begin?
A winning pitch requires some basic information. If you know anything about your subject, then write the pitch and only do enough research to answer the questions you don’t know. Do NOT spend hours on this! Look, the bottom line is that you have no idea what research you need until you are assigned the article and your editor tells you what approach she wants you to take.
All you need right now is enough data to know who the major players are, what themes come up repeatedly, basic information on the location or geography, and names of people and organizations that you want to interview. That’s it. A quick Google search will be enough at this point.
Obviously, as you look for this information, you’ll find lots more. Don’t throw it away because you’ll need it later. If you use EverNote or Word’s OneNote, then create a notebook for each pitch. Simply add your information to the appropriate notebook as you come across it. That way, you’re ready to start reading as soon as you get the assignment.
If you need statistics for your article, then skim them quickly so you have a general understanding of trends. Do NOT memorize, or even fully read, this data until you get the story.
For most queries, your initial research should take only a few minutes. If your subject is something you know nothing about, you will need to spend more time on it – for the majority of pitches, anything more than an hour is too much.
At this stage, I prefer to write a quick draft while everything is fresh. At the very least, I create a mind map so that I can capture my ideas.
Now you need to prepare for interviews. You’ve gathered enough info to set up a list of questions. Remember, these are SHORT interviews at only 5-10 minutes each. After you get the assignment you’ll schedule in-depth discussions with your sources.
Think of interviews as a key component of research. You never know what you’ll learn. Often, your interview will simply clarify or repeat what you found in your initial research. That’s perfect because I would rather cite a human source than an article or website.
The real interview gold comes when your source tells you something new that didn’t turn up in your research. Take advantage of that and get your pitch out quickly with a huge (metaphorical) arrow pointing at your scoop.
Once you have finished your interviews, write a good draft of your query. If you wrote a quick draft at the end of your initial research, this step is dead easy. All you need to do is tweak your query based on information you’ve learned and add a couple of quotes from your interviews.
Research can be ridiculously easy
Assuming you finished your query, edited it beautifully, and actually hit the SEND button, the time will come when you will need to finish your research. Okay, I glossed over a major part of this. I have full confidence that you will get hired – maybe not by the first publisher, but by the second, or third, or whichever one it happens to be. If the idea truly is good, you simply need to find the right market at the right time.
So, back to research. Open your file, read through everything again, and combine your notes with the guidelines your editor sent you.
Write a thorough outline with the information you already have. Do NOT do any further research at this stage. Once you see where the gaps in your knowledge are, it’s time to do the in-depth interviews. Focus on the information that you need to complete the article. Again, it’s easy to overthink this stage and try to learn everything. Fight the urge.
This is a business. If you can’t overcome your insistence on doing too much research, how do you plan to make money? And, let’s be honest, you are freelancing to make money. So, bottom line? Figure out what you need, get it, and move on to the next interview.
Actually, there is no ‘next’. Your research is done. Write your article, edit it, and send it off for approval. Once you get the list of revisions, you might have to fill a couple of holes in your knowledge. Again, make sure your focus is razor sharp and only look for the info you need.
I told you it was easy. Hey, I’m a control freak (and a trained researcher) and I’ve learned to stop obsessing about what else I might find if I check just one more source. You can do it, too. I know you can.
What research steps do you take to get your article out the door as quickly (and professionally) as possible? Please share in the comments section.