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8 content research best practices

We’ve seen a breakout year for freelance writers and thought leadership creators, and there have been plenty of content research best practices that have accompanied the popularity of freelancing and writing.

With Covid-19 proving that many still thrive when they’re working remotely, companies are hiring more remote workers and freelancers than ever before. Creating a compelling piece of content based on research requires much more than our discipline, though. As freelance writing and thought leadership becomes a more saturated space, you need to understand all aspects of your niche, and utilize content research best practices in order to produce compelling and original work. 

The content research best practices below will help ensure that written work is up to par, in terms of professional quality. They’ll go through conducting content research, taking research notes, and citing online sources for written research projects. They’ll also look at useful resources and tools to avoid writing death traps like sourcing false news and committing plagiarism. 

8 content research best practices

  1. Defining your research project parameters
  2. Organize research
  3. Taking notes and crafting a thesis statement
  4. Outlining your content research
  5. Organizing your notes
  6. Writing original content
  7. Editing your piece of content
  8. Protecting against plagiarism

1. Defining your research project parameters

Both scholarly writing assignments and paid writing opportunities will usually come with requirements or formal expectations. It’s important to determine what those expectations are before you begin with your content research. Make sure you’re able to answer the following details definitively, even if the answer is that no specific guidelines or standards will need to be met:

Writing style: are you writing an essay, a term paper, a blog post, or an article? 

Essays and term papers usually fall under scholarly assignments. Otherwise, content assigned to and written by freelancers tends to be labeled a blog post, article, journal, or document. Blogs and articles have major differences in style.

Normally, blog posts give writers more creative freedom. They allow for original arguments, then use supporting details to corroborate opinions. Blogs are written content formed by someone’s belief or opinion, and not often supported by evidence. 

In contrast, articles and journals (as well as most reports) need multiple sources to back up their claims. Considered formal writing, they focus on recorded facts, instead of beliefs or opinions. In order to prove accuracy, they call for large amounts of credible, comprehensive research. 

So what qualifies as content research? The online Oxford dictionary defines research as a systematic investigation and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

In other words, research is professional documentation that can be corroborated by multiple credible sources. It is usually collected by experts in the field of interest and backed by scientific evidence or pre-recorded social trends. It provides the writer with well-proven (undisputed) facts.

In order for a writer to produce their own compelling piece of content, it’s crucial to weed out all sources that are false or unsubstantiated; especially online. Anyone can publish or upload writing on the web. Unfortunately, many spread biases as truth, despite showing actual evidence. It’s up to the writer to do their due diligence and pick out the truth from a lie.

A good rule of thumb to remember when looking for credible sources: The research should always list who it was authored by. As long as the work can be credited to a company or person, it can be checked against more research to confirm truth or validity. No ownership? The writer should choose another source. Several reputable websites also have content research tips to help writers (and readers) with their online fact checks. I’ve included one here as a reference.  

Project expectations: What additional criteria needs to be met or adhered to? 

Unless you’re writing for yourself, such as posting on your blog or writing for your website, whoever assigned or commissioned your project will usually do so with guidelines. Familiarize yourself with what’s expected of your work:

  • Assignment theme
  • Subtopic(s) and keywords
  • Research criteria
  • Length of assignment or project 

Assignment Theme

In order to build a strong content research base, you need to know where to begin. What were you hired (or assigned) to write about? What topics, themes, and research questions are you looking up, or gathering resources on? Topics, which are more specific and unique to the assignment, may not be needed quite yet, but the theme provides the project’s overall direction. If a writer doesn’t understand the project’s theme requirements, time may be wasted by searching unrelated websites, reading irrelevant articles, and or saving research outside of the project’s intended parameters.   

Example of a theme: pet ownership

Subtopic(s) and keyword ideas

Without defining subtopics, the vast amount of information on the world wide web would be difficult to navigate. They narrow down a project’s theme and point the writer’s content research in the right direction. Likewise, keywords (often a phrase or a search term) help define the concept of the project. 

Consider the theme that we’ve chosen above. If the overall assignment is to write about pet ownership, what areas of ownership are going to be tackled? Are there specific questions that the writing needs to answer for the target audience? Does the project or assignment allow the writer freedom to choose their own subtopics, or do they need to fulfill pre-defined expectations?

  • Example of a subtopic: pros and cons of having pets 
  • Examples of possible keywords: dogs, cats, pets, pet owners
  • Examples of key phrases: owning dogs and cats, pros and cons of pets 

Content research criteria

How many additional references are needed for your project? Can you refer to online magazines, third-party websites, personal blogs, and local, online news links? Can you utilize peer-reviewed articles, or do all of your materials need to be collected from scholarly articles, technical references, and scientific databases?

Length of content research process

The intended (or expected) word count of any given project can help determine how much outside information is needed to satisfy writing goals. If your project doesn’t specify / leaves this open-ended, I go by the following self-imposed rule: 10-12 sources for roughly every 1500 words.

2. Organize research

Whatever you’re planning to write about, there’s no such thing as too much research. When it comes to my best tips to organize research, collecting sufficient materials for your writing topic is essential: it’s better to have extra sources than not enough to cover all aspects of the project. Grasping at straws to come up with enough supporting evidence can result in producing a project that’s weak or even unreliable. If you end up with notes that aren’t relevant or don’t address your topics, you can always throw them out.

When you organize research, even if unsure they’ll be included in the project, I suggest keeping track of the following:

  • Author’s name
  • Title of document or article
  • Website name 
  • Date of publication
  • Date of access (the date you looked it up) 
  • URL (the website link) 

You may need additional details, depending on what format your references need to be kept in. As far as citation styles go, APA, MLA, and Chicago formats are the three most common:

  1. APA (American Psychological Association): mostly social or behavioral science topics 
  2. MLA (Modern Language Association): mostly for literature or arts and humanities topics
  3. Chicago: mostly for history topics

For more on citations, PaperTrue’s Blog has awesome resources, for example, a breakdown of how to cite sources in MLA format.

When doing content research, it’s good to keep your sources written in an online notepad, word processing document, or knowledge base (like Kahana).

Screenshot of Kahana for organizing content research
Kahana can be used for organizing content research and notes in a single window.

Using Kahana as a knowledge base is one of my best tips for content research because it solves the issue of having multiple floating docs on your screen and lets you upload online sources into hubs for easy reference later on. 

It’s also beneficial to create a bookmark folder for each project that you work on. This may not be an option if using a public or shared one. When able to, however, it offers some extra security. 

Helpful video about how to organize content research

3. Taking notes and crafting a thesis statement

Once you determine your project parameters and organize research, it’s time to start taking your notes. If not already given by a teacher, employer, or client, this is where you’ll need to build your project’s thesis statement. Simply put, the thesis – usually one or two sentences within the introduction – helps define the main objective of the entire project. A strong thesis statement sets figurative boundaries for all supporting texts. It should be considered the project’s foundation; the statement or opinion that all other parts of the writing will circle back to and support. 

Some may argue that the thesis should be chosen prior to doing any research, but there’s a method to my madness, so to speak. It’s not uncommon for the focus of a project or assignment to shift during research collection. This is especially true if the writer is new to or naive on the topic they need to explain. Becoming familiar with what kind of research exists on the topic at hand will help the writer choose the focus and direction of their work. It’s hard to build a decent thesis without any subject knowledge! 

If your topic is pet ownership and your subtopic lists the pros and cons of owning dogs and cats, your thesis may look like a statement below: 

  1. Example 1: While owning a dog or a cat has advantages, the huge responsibility may prove disadvantageous if not adequately prepared. 
  2. Example 2: While owning a dog or a cat can be a very rewarding experience, there are disadvantages. 
  3. Example 3: As wonderful as owning a dog or cat can be, there are several situations where it may not be the right decision for somebody’s household. 

The thesis isn’t always the very first line of the project. It’s simply included within the project’s introduction (first paragraph of text). Once you have it written, you’ll be able to go through your research and copy or highlight applicable notes. For content research, I copy and paste everything from a resource into a virtual notepad, then go back in and highlight the pertinent details in red. The red text is what I will later rephrase and expand on when I do my writing. I don’t start my own writing until every detail I want to include from my research has been marked. 

4. Outlining your content research

Another one of my content research tips for any project is to create a structured outline. Once the information needed to do the assignment is marked, it’s time to write a research paper outline of the overall project or writing assignment. The outline will be a loose guideline to help keep the flow of the writing on track. It should also help with smoother paragraph transitions. 

So how should the outline be built? After reviewing all usable (relevant; highlighted) research notes, the writer should decide on three or four points to expand on. As stated above, these points should all tie into the paper’s main objective. Standard outlines can be used, such as the one I’ve included below. Other forms of outlining – mind mapping, charting, and using idea boards – can also be helpful for visual writers. 

Keeping with the theme of pets – specifically dog and cat ownership – consider the following outline example: 

Working Title: Keeping Dogs and Cats as Pets: A Look At Pros and Cons 

Intro (thesis): As wonderful as owning a dog or cat can be, there are several situations where it may not be the right decision for somebody’s household.

Point 1: Benefits of Dog and Cat Ownership

  • Subtopic: Physical health benefits (raises endorphins)
  • Subtopic: Emotional benefits (companionship, relaxation response)

Point Two: Disadvantages of Dog and Cat Ownership

  • Subtopic: Physical responsibilities (clean up, walking, grooming, training)
  • Subtopic: Financial responsibilities (feeding costs, vet bills, boarding) 

Point Three: Choosing the right pet for your household 

  • Subtopic: Matching pet personalities to life situations (work, kids)
  • Subtopic: Choosing the right breed (allergies, size, overall temperament)

Point 4: Alternatives to Dog and Cat Ownership

  • Subtopic: Consider other pets (rabbits, hamsters, pets with less upkeep)
  • Subtopic: Volunteering with pets (example: at a shelter)

Conclusion (closing statement): summation of the project 

5. Organizing your notes 

After the project is outlined, the highlighted notes should be sorted and grouped together by their topic. During this stage of the content research, I always recommend a few specific tips for organizing secondary sources, and even tertiary sources, to ensure you are adding sufficient additional context about each of your points. If four points have been chosen to explore the pros and cons of owning dogs and cats, we should mark any details pertaining to those points accordingly.  I love adding research at this stage, however. Since topics have been narrowed down, searching for and adding supporting information is relatively easy. 

  • Notes about benefits: Group 1
  • Note about drawbacks: Group 2
  • Notes about adoption and compatibility: Group 3
  • Notes about adoption or ownership alternatives: Group 4

Research note organization is another great example as to why I prefer using virtual notepads to keep track of my sources. Notes (and their source links) can be copied and pasted accordingly, under corresponding headers. If preferred, each note can also be marked with its respective number. I find that method more confusing and much more time-consuming, yet everyone works differently. Writers should use any method that streamlines their process and makes the most practical use of their allotted time. 

Best practices for organizing your notes

6. Writing original content

No guide or list of content research best practices would be complete without best practices for writing original content. Making sure our writing is original (to avoid plagiarism) and as powerful as possible is (arguably) just as important as making sure all of our sources are credible. It’s not enough to just collect facts from online sources and paste them together to use as our own. In fact, it can destroy a writer’s reputation, resulting in student expulsion or even corporate lawsuits. In order to avoid it, there are several helpful tricks. 

Under the sentence of research, I want to include in my project, I think about how I’d explain what I read if giving an oral report, then rewrite it in my own words. This is known as paraphrasing.

  • Online text: Endorphins are hormones the body releases in reaction to stress or pain.
  • Text rewritten: When we feel overwhelmed or experience pain, our bodies respond by releasing hormones called endorphins. 

Once my sentence is rewritten, I still make sure to reference the original source that I paraphrased. I prefer to do this by attaching a smart link to one of the keywords, but creating bibliographies or footnotes would also work well. 

Smart links will appear as underlined, blue text, and lead back to the source when clicked. In the example below, I attached an article (from thenest.com) to my rewritten sentence. I chose to do so using the shared keyword: endorphins.

  • Text rewritten with a smart link: When we feel overwhelmed or experience pain, our bodies respond by releasing hormones called endorphins

Next, I read through all the research that references the topic. 

When done, I close it out and write as much as I can (without help). 

If possible, I try to relate what I’m writing to my own experience. This helps me ensure I’m relaying the message in a brand new way, as well as eliminating chances of stealing someone else’s work. 

In this instance, since I have a dog and a cat, as well as a chronic pain issue, I have firsthand experience relating to my topic. By sharing them or loosely drawing correlations, I can add originality to my project or assignment. 

In combination, all five steps – paraphrasing, linking sources, reading through collected content, using memory summation, and adding my firsthand experience – effectively help me ensure that I don’t plagiarize anyone’s work. Writers should use any method that helps them refrain from the same. When in doubt, however, always link the source. 

For more on paraphrasing, I recommended checking out the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

 7. Editing your piece of content

After the research project is written, the bulk of the hard work is over. However, when providing best practices, I feel that editing is a tip that cannot be skipped.

According to this article put out by Lamark Media, “At worst, a typo may make your message misleading or hard to understand. At best, your website will look sloppy.” The article goes on to outline several valid reasons why marketing error-free web content should be every writer’s goal. 

In addition to the spell check features that come standard with most platforms, there are dozens of online writing tools that will check for more complicated grammar and punctuation errors. In terms of free tools, my personal favorite is Grammar Lookup.

Please keep in mind these are far from the only options writers have. Thank you, technology gods!

8. Protecting against plagiarism 

Earlier, I mentioned how careful writers need to be when it comes to taking credit for another person’s work. If you followed the tips for writing original content in section 6, chances are your project will be plagiarism-free. It never hurts to double-check, though. Much like the editing tools from above, there are plagiarism checkers available online. 

In order to do their jobs well, writers need to be both thorough and conscientious of their sources. They also need to be aware of how to put together marketable words. Written content that has aspects of unique thought leadership is in high demand. Professors and employers want more than just well-written work. Original material that readers can quickly substantiate will set you apart in your classroom, as well as from oceans of freelancers vying for writing assignments. 

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The Bottom Line

I care about working with people that want to make a difference through writing and the arts, and these content research best practices are just the start. If you’re interested in finding out more about my personal story, let’s connect on Twitter. I also write my own blog, An Inside Out Existence, about personal introspective insights I have had.

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