5 ways freelance writers can become better, faster researchers

Every piece of content marketing requires at least some research. Whether that’s sifting through a client-provided research report or scouring the web for rare statistics, research is an important part of the content creation process. And that matters because writers do not always love doing research. 

I’ve always been a little surprised by the number of writers who tell me that research is the hardest part of their content marketing assignments. But I’m a lifelong researcher—and I actually enjoy it—so my perspective may be somewhat skewed. As I talk with more writers about how the research phase of their work goes, I find myself repeating the same pieces of advice. While I’ve written some research advice in the past, there’s probably no end to the tips I could share on the subject. 

Before we dig into the details, let’s revisit the case for reducing your research time. As all freelancers know, figuring out how to do part of your job faster (and more efficiently) frees up time. And in the world of a hard-working small business owner, that available time can be used to make even more fat stacks of cash (haha) or to do other important things, like reward ourselves with family time and vacations. 

So, the business of freelance writing often becomes about hacking your productivity, and finding new ways to do more in the same amount of time. When it comes to research, many writers discover themselves at the bottom of a deep rabbit hole before they even realize what’s happened, but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

How to become a better, faster researcher: 

1. Identify ideal sources. Chances are, your content marketing client has some ideas about what types of sources they’d like to see in your finished deliverable. If they haven’t told you before or with the assignment, you should ask. Most companies want to avoid quoting or linking to competitors (including stats), some will use news outlets while others won’t, and some prefer strictly independent industry associations. Ask your client about the age of sources as well, since most companies doing content marketing only want stats and sources that are two or three years old, at most.

2. Write an outline. You should be writing outlines for most of your content marketing deliverables anyway, but even if you’re not sharing it with the client, sketch out an outline to map the major points of your article. Beneath each point in your outline, list all the relevant questions your audience may have or types of data points that may be relevant. Phrase each one in the form of a question. You’ll use this as a guide when you sit down to research your topic.

3. Select search terms strategically. Increasingly, search engines are becoming more responsive to question-based inquiries (you can thank the rise of voice search for this), so the questions you drafted in your outline are a good place to start. But after your initial search, you’ll probably need to swap out some search terms to either broaden or narrow your results. For instance, if you start off looking for “content marketing trends,” then you might dial down to “content marketing technology trends” or “content marketing tools trends” or even “digital marketing technology trends.” Look at Google’s related searches (typically at the bottom of page 1) to see if any of them are closer to your target. Variations, related terms, and synonyms will all bring up different search results. 

4. Cap your time. Don’t spend more than a few (and I mean literally a few, as in three or four) minutes on each search. You don’t need to dig through 10 pages of search results, and you don’t need to read every word of every article that looks interesting. It’s also key to manage your overall research time, and the best way to do that is to run through all your research queries once beginning to end without getting slogged down. If there are any points you need to circle back to at the end, you can do so, but chances are, you may not need to. 

To prevent the rabbit hole effect, use a bookmarking tool like Pocket to save things you want to read later, especially if you think you’ll be covering similar topics in the future. I also recommend bookmarking banks of statistics when you find good ones. 

5. Specialize, especially. Writers who specialize in one or a few niches will have an easier time wrangling research. Specialization allows writers to become experts in a field, knowing precisely which sources to go to for various types of information, particularly when it comes to research and statistics. If you’re writing about a topic for the very first time, you won’t have that advantage. 

On their own, these tips will help you become a more efficient researcher and free up some of your time. Many content marketing writers opt to outsource research to a virtual assistant instead of tackling it themselves. This saves even more time and also adds up to a tangible cost savings, since a VA’s typical rate is much lower than the effective hourly rate you’ll get from your content marketing writing assignments.