All freelance writers have to research information for magazine and newspaper articles, or for writing projects they’re doing for business clients. True, freelance writers can do research the Internet, but sometimes important information just isn’t there and — gasp! — you’ll need to find information in actual print.
But before you head out the door…
Create Your Freelance Writer Home Reference Library
Build your own collection of reference books so you can do some or all of your research at home. If you specialize in a specific field, get books you’ll need to consult frequently.
In addition, you’ll need the following:
- Books on how to write well
- Style guides for writing
- How-to books for software you use frequently
- Any other books you’ll view often
Don’t have what you need at home? Head out the door and…
Make the Most of Libraries for Freelance Writing Research
If you’re like most people, you live in or near a sizable town or city, so you have multiple libraries ready to serve you.
Just about every town with a gas station has a local library. Cities typically have many branches. Depending on what you need, you may be fine at a local branch. However, the main branch is always the largest and provides the widest variety of information sources.
College and University Libraries
I love higher education libraries. The best of them host vast collections of books and periodicals, so if what you need is in print, you’ll likely find it at one of the top educational institutions.
Size definitely matters: typically, the larger the school in terms of number of students, the more info you’ll find. There’s also a correlation between the academic focus and the library offerings. I did my undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of California at Davis, which has excellent library sources.
Here’s a typical hierarchy ranking institutions from most resources to least:
- Universities offering undergraduate degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorates (UC Davis, for example)
- Universities offering primarily undergraduate degrees, with some master’s degrees
- Colleges offering primarily undergraduate degrees
- Community colleges offering two-year degrees
Many college and university libraries will let non-students check out materials as long as they pay an annual or semester fee. I’ve done this before and was very glad I did.
Many large cities have libraries that focus on specific subjects — law, for example. These libraries can be quite useful if you need to do in-depth research on those subjects.
Learn How to Search for Information
Each library is a bit different, but there’s typically an electronic database that contains much or all of the contents of the library. Figure out how the search system works at the specific library you’re using.
You need to be clear on what you want. If it’s a few basic facts, an encyclopedia or maybe a single book from the reference section will do. If you need a lot of information, or you’re still formulating what to include in your piece, you’ll need more material, perhaps several books and periodicals.
There are 2 main ways American libraries categorize books. The Dewey Decimal Classification, with numbers from 000 to the 900s, is common in local libraries. The Library of Congress Classification uses the letters A-Z.
Here’s a useful tip for finding a bunch of books on the same subject. Do a database search and find one book that’s definitely what you want. Locate it on the shelves and you should also see many other books on the same subject to the left and right of it.
These folks know how to find just about anything, so you definitely want to make use of their skills. Do it intelligently, though, by being very clear about exactly what you’re looking for, and also by locating it yourself if you can easily do so.
Finding Information in a Book
Let’s say you’ve located a book that you think has important information. Here are 6 tips to get that information as quickly as possible:
- Focus only on the information you really need. Ask yourself what you want to find in the book. Tell your mind to filter out only the important info.
- Use the table of contents to get an overview of the book and to determine which chapters and subsections are relevant.
- Use the index to search specifically for what you want.
- When reading, scan quickly for key words and phrases rather than plodding through entire chapters.
- Use speed-reading techniques. Speed reading greatly increases how rapidly you get research done.
- Remember the 80-20 Rule — the Pareto Principle: 80% of your useful information will come from 20% of your sources, so locate those best sources quickly and make the most use of them.
How often do you do research in actual print sources? Which ones are most useful to you? Where do you find them? And do you like being in libraries?