5 Mistakes You Make when Researching for Your Writing

Research is a key ingredient in writing. Even if you’re writing contemporary fiction, there will be things you need to know so your story is believable. Research is unavoidable. You need to do it.

Research is CRUCIAL to historical fiction, nonfiction, or papers and essay for academic purposes. In fact, it’s probably the biggest hurdle for most students when it comes to writing for school. The pile of sources and information is far too big and the due date is much too close.

I get it.

I do, because I’ve been there. And to be honest, no one ever taught me how to research successfully. (Something I’m still irritated about.) So I want to break it down so it’s not so daunting.

Mistake #1 The Topic is too Broad

Say you want to write about the Civil War. Or sports. Or Healthy Eating. Or Winston Churchill. Or pick your subject.

What’s the problem with all of these? They are WAY too broad. When I have students who say the want to write about something like sports, I want to shake my head. Entire books have been written on this subject. There is way too much information and many different avenues to explore than could fit in a paper or article. And even if you want to write a book about sports, there’s still too much information out there!

Solution: Focus!

You have to focus your topic down to just one idea. One way of figuring out how is to answer two simple questions:

  1. Who do I want to talk to?
  2. What do I want to say?

If you want to write to children and encourage them to participate in sports, then you don’t need to research football statistics. If you want to explain to history buffs how new advances in transportation led to the outcome of the Civil War, you’re not going to research the assassination of Lincoln.

Focus your topic down to one main idea that you want your ideal reader to come away with.

Mistake #2 Not Using Primary Sources

I don’t know what is so daunting about primary sources, but it drives me crazy that no one uses them! Primary sources are a record or experience from the people who lived it or are living it. I get it, it’s much easier to do a generic Google Search, but if you want to ensure that you are getting accurate, unbiased information, go to the source.

Solution: Get to the Original Source!

Do (or read) the interviews. Go to the Library of Congress and look up the ads, photos, newspaper articles, journals, etc. It’s available if you do a little digging. You can find letters written in Thomas Edison’s own hand! You can see the original executive orders. You can get a direct quote from an interview of a WWII survivor. Primary sources are where the magic in research lies.

Mistake #3 Only Using One Type of Source

I know the internet is easy. And it is often my first stop when I begin research on something. You can find anything on the internet! It’s a wonderful tool! BUT the internet is also limited. You can find plenty of information that is useless or biased or just plain wrong!

Solution: Broaden Your Search

I always say this to students, but many of them will not listen. Go beyond the internet as a source! Some of the greatest sources you could use are documentaries, podcast interviews, TED talks, music, photos, newspapers, and magazines–there is so much out there! Any you’d be surprised at how enjoyable research can be when it’s in a format you enjoy!

Mistake #4 Not Keeping Track of Sources

How many times have you found a great resource and then when you go back to find more information, you can’t find it again! If you can’t find it, you can’t use it! Students make this mistake all the time.

Solution: Make a List as You Go

Have a running list that you add to as you go. It can be as simple as a blank document that you copy and paste titles or web addresses to. Eventually you will need to make a bibliography or works cited page, (This is a great resource for that!) but having a list of your sources at the ready is a lifesaver!

Mistake #5 Not Understanding Your Topic

I can always tell when a student picked a subject they didn’t like or didn’t understand. The discomfort is totally transparent in the writing. Don’t do this. Either find a topic you enjoy or are interested in, or spend the time to really understand what you want to write about. Don’t write a piece on the American Revolution if you hate war or have no knowledge of the subject.

Solution #1: Learn about it

You can learn about anything if you’re willing to take the time. But many students (and people) don’t want to take the time to learn about it. Because research takes time. Months–maybe even years depending on the length of the written work.

Solution #2: Choose a different topic.

The other option is to choose something that you are excited about. If you need to write something about the American Revolution and hate war, but you love fashion and clothes–then write about the fashion of 1776! Find some aspect of whatever you’re writing about that interests you and gets you pumped to find out more.

Next time you need to research, keep these things in mind! It’ll take the stress and confusion out of researching for your writing


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