How to get research working for you and your writing, part 3

It’s very easy to be lazy about research for your writing projects when all you need to do is Google the topic and hey presto, you have an instant choice of several million results to browse without leaving the comfort of your office chair. But even in our virtual age, it can still pay dividends to get off our butts and go see, touch and feel. In this second article, we look at ways of getting people to open up and say what they really think. (If you haven’t read the earlier articles, click here for part 1, and click here for part 2.)

What questions do you ask, and how?

Once you get the conversation rolling, you need to employ some of the basic techniques used by good corporate/business TV interviewers (not journalists and TV interviewers, as their interviews are usually adversarial – makes for more exciting TV, they say.)

You probably won’t need to base your questions on the news reporters’ list of “who, what, where, when, how and why,” because you’re more likely to be looking for feelings and inclinations rather than hard facts. But even though you don’t ask your questions in the news reporter’s style, that list can be a useful structure for you to base your thinking on.

Be careful how you phrase your questions – be tactful and polite 

Always make your questions open-ended, so they invite an answer. Ask for opinions. People love to give their opinions.

Never ask a “closed” question (one that can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.”) Use “open” questions with the news reporters’ list as a basis, but be gentle – not just “why does everyone hate bindweed so much,” but “why do you think bindweed has become such a problem for gardeners?”

When asking a question, just ask one – don’t include more than one key thought. 

When you’ve asked a question, shut up. Let the person speak. Don’t interrupt or attempt to steer what they’re saying. 

If they falter or hesitate on an important point, don’t press them on it. Ask them something else, then return to your original point later on, remembering to ask the question in a different way so they don’t realise it’s the same point. You’ll be surprised how well that can work.

And when you’ve finished, thank them. They’ve helped you to plan your writing project better and more effectively.

Researching from copyright material

An important part of researching for a writing project often is to read other people’s books, blogs and articles on related topics. Be warned, however, that lifting information from someone else’s material is not only immoral but also can get you into pretty deep doo-doo, legally speaking. Plagiarism, although technically not the same as copyright infringement, actually amounts to much the same thing and by trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own, even if you were to get away without a lawsuit, would be very damaging to your credibility.

Needless to say the advent of the internet has made plagiarism almost into an international sport, to the extent that you can now employ tracking services and software to find out who is passing off your work as their own anywhere in the world. The ease with which people can cut and paste text has meant that the old tricks of students using someone else’s essay material has become as easy as a few clicks. This need not concern you unless your writing project is of an academic nature, but be warned. Not only will you have to avoid using anyone else’s material, but also if your writing gets published online you may find others helping themselves to yours.

If you do want to include some quotations from others’ books or articles, even very long ones, doing so normally isn’t difficult, although it can be time consuming to track down an author or copyright owner. Having bits of your book quoted in other books is good publicity and not many authors will turn you down, provided you behave respectfully and honorably. So be sure you get permission to use others’ material and ensure that permission exists in your records (as opposed to verbal permission) … just in case.

More research resources:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand




  1. […] Click on, now, to Part 2 of this article – and here’s Part 3. […]