So you’ve started a new writing job and things are going pretty swimmingly, then it happens… you’re assigned an article that you know absolutely nothing about. More than that, you’ve actively avoided this topic as long as possible.
It’s time to face the music. Here’s what to do when you have no idea how to write about the topic you’re assigned.
FREAK OUT! Then Move On
As much as we’d like to think that we don’t, we tend to get stressed out when we’re tasked with writing something that we know nothing about. Some of us get stressed out internally, while other unfortunate souls are cursed with stressing out externally. Whichever way you process your stress, don’t ignore it.
Allow yourself some time to quickly go through the five stages of grief – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and, eventually, Acceptance – and move on.
Research… The Right Way
Let’s go ahead and address the elephant in the metaphorical room – Wikipedia. Yes, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia. Yes, it’s tempting to use. But keep in mind that Wikipedia, no matter how comprehensive it may seem, and is, at the end of the day, it’s a crowd-sourced Word document. There’s a reason that they include citations at the bottom of every article.
Don’t use Wikipedia as the primary source for your research. Instead use trustworthy online journals, blogs, and resource sites.
Google Scholar is a great place to start. Let’s take an article that I was assigned recently on HIPAA. I know nothing about HIPAA, and I’m not afraid to admit that. By searching through online journals and health sites, though, I was able to get a crash course and understand HIPAA in a little under a half hour. Think of it as similar to the way Neo downloaded information in The Matrix, but way less time efficient and fun.
Remember the library? It’s the place you used to go when you were a kid and they had thousands upon thousands of books, for free, that you could take home. Well, guess what? It’s time to go back. Libraries are stocked to the ceiling full of books that are great resources. Plus, university libraries also have journals and sources that you won’t get anywhere else.
Most people know about the Library of Congress, but don’t know that you don’t have to head to D.C. to take advantage of it. If you’re writing about anything history related, head over to the Library of Congress and browse through their treasure trove of information. Anything related to history will be here, from newspaper articles and pictures to sound recordings and legislative information.
Ask a Friend, an Expert, or Even a Stranger for Help
While some of us (me) are too proud to ask a friend, it’s still an excellent idea to get another person’s opinion on a topic to fully grasp what you’re talking about.
I understand that freelance writers don’t have the luxury of asking someone in a desk next to them, but you’re on the Internet. There are millions of message boards designed to help you keep in contact with other people. So search for forums where experts might hang out and ask questions, and check out Quora, an online Q&A site, where experts frequently answer questions in their industries.
And don’t forget about social media. Find an expert on Twitter or Linkedin and message them a short question about the industry. If you are going to be writing about the unknown topic frequently, don’t stop at a short question, as them if they would be willing to do a Q and A with you. The internet is a place where people love to share what they know. So don’t be afraid to ask for help, even if it is from a stranger.
Revise and Ask for a Second Opinion
When I first started at CopyPress, as most writers do, I thought my work was alright. I was wrong.
I can string together words and ideas, but there’s always someone else who can make your argument tighter and expand your sections. Swallow your pride and get a second set of eyes on your work, and – this is important – be open to criticism. No one is trying to hurt or discredit your work, they’re trying to strengthen it. They can open your eyes to angles you can take your article that you may not have previously realized.
And remember those friends you made online. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help on revising and editing too. Those experts might be the perfect people to confirm a fact or statement you are unsure about, and forums of editors might be open and willing to edit your work if you edit theirs in return.
That’s it. You’re done! If you’re anything like me, though, you hate this part – public critique. Working at CopyPress has helped me get over this for the most part, but I still get a little nervous every time I hit submit. How do you feel at the end of an article?