My first job after university was with the Nova Scotia Museum as a Curatorial Assistant. In that job, research was a part of my daily activity. When I wasn’t cataloguing artifacts, I was conducting research in the archives, or in the records of local historical societies. By using diaries, contemporary newspapers, probate records and correspondence we were able to provide background information for gallery exhibits or to determine appropriate furnishings for a particular historic house or what grew in the garden. I loved the work.
The challenge was to find out all we could about someone, or something and fit that information into a context for a specific audience. In my business today, I use the same research principles when writing articles, white papers, case studies, or website content for specific target markets.
In the museum context, I wrote material for the various age groups of exhibit visitors. Children aged 6-10 years, teens and adults. I also wrote a “Coles Notes” version of the life in 18th century Nova Scotia to provide some context for historic house guides for sites such as Ross-Thomson House in Shelburne, N.S. I also wrote for a more academic audience with an entry in Volume VI of the Dictionary of Canadian Bilography.
Research was the basis for all that writing and research is the basis of all the writing that I do now. The resources are no longer musty handwritten documents that require deciphering. The skills of understanding what the audience/customer needs, asking questions, seeking out information, keeping notes, organizing and analyzing research material are the same.
Most of my work today is writing website content. The main information resource is often a one-on-one interview with my customer. At this discovery stage, I digitally record interviews so that I can be sure to grasp the important technical vocabulary and nuances. On second listening the recording often provides new insight. I also take notes but the recording fills in a gap or two.
YouTube provides an immense resource on every imaginable topic. But you must consider the source, its authority, motivation and reliability.
Blogs also provide a great deal of information and advice. I sometimes think of blogs and comments on blogs as the very worst of open line radio talk shows. Everyone has a voice (including me) and not everyone knows of what he speaks! Blogs do give voice to previously unheard contributors. We make careful choices on our listening selection. Every good researcher considers his source.
Similarly, historical research is limited to the documents that have survived. We strive to determine the relevance of the source. Sometimes we don’t know if the writers of these old documents were the nutbars of their time.
In historical research, a primary source such as a diary is always considered preferable. The diary of Anne Frank, for example is a stunning first hand account that delivers colour and context in a way that a history textbook cannot.
Blogs are the 21st century version of a diary and they can be useful sources of information, opinion and context.
WikiHow and Wikipedia also provide helpful backgrounder information on every topic. Do they speak with the same authority as Encyclopedia Britannica once did? This everyman authentication gives a broader interpretation of the world we live in.
Google search is probably the first place people go to find information. The quantity and quality of information is overwhelming. Organizing the information that you find can be a challenge. Bookmarking tools when used properly are a huge help.
Sites such as Del.icio.us can provide useful links to new-to-me information. For a helpful tutorial watch Donna Papacosta’s video about using Del.icio.us to advantage.
The two-fold benefit of finding resources that other people are using and organizing your own bookmarks make Del.icio.us a powerful tool.
Uncover the nuggets and write
Research uncovers the nuggets of information that will make your writing glow. Information collected during the research phase provides the foundation for your writing. Research tells you how much more you need to research. That is always the challenge. You need to know when to start writing.
How do you conduct research? What tools do you find the most helpful? How do you organize your notes, interviews, bookmarks?