Picture this scenario:
It’s time to write a new post for your blog.
You decided this will be a long-form content that’s packed with research which your readers can’t resist.
And so you set out to do your research. You mined the web for explanations, expert quotes, research studies, data and other factoids that you need. You feel like a detective following every crumbs of clues on a trail.
After 3 hours, you’ve collected web page after web page of information.
You’re exhausted. You’ve read some bits and pieces — a factoid here, a concept there. But your mind is spinning with the massive amount of information you just collected.
You open up your editor to start writing. But you’re clueless. How do you make sense of all the convoluted mess?
You try writing the piece but you feel it’s not presented in the best possible order and the overall structure feels off.
If so, you may be doing research wrong.
Blogging 101: Are You Falling for the Collector’s Fallacy?
When it comes to research, many people do it by collecting tons of sources and then reading them quick. After that, without thinking it through, they set out to write a draft.
You see, as you bookmark web page after web page and copy blocks of texts into a document, you get the satisfaction of having some work done.
But it’s not researching. It’s collecting. Christian Tietze of the Zettekasten refers to this tendency as the Collector’s Fallacy and provides great insight about this in his post.
When you do research this way, you miss the most critical thing: Retention
Fast writers, those who can quickly crank the words out and those who mostly get it right the first time, have a high retention of their topic before they start writing the draft.
They understand that retention is very important. So they nurture it like a mother takes care of her baby.
Why is that?
Because retention is what enables you to write with a clear structure in mind. You know what to say throughout and you write with little or no stopping. Sure the first draft will be far from perfect which is pretty much a given. But you spend less time writing that first draft, revising and figuring out how to put the pieces in order.
I like calling this as ‘knowing your topic by heart.’
Sounds like a great place to be?
It is. And you can achieve this if you stop treating research like a treasure hunt. Instead, I propose a different approach. Here are the steps:
- Gather sources
Ok, let’s go into each of these in detail:
Step 1: Plan
If you want to improve how you write your posts each time, planning is one of the things you shouldn’t skip. You’ll need a writing plan. Having one is like having a handy map that guides you as a tourist who is navigating a new place.
So how do you plan your content? Here’s how:
– Define your main argument.
This is the angle of your post. When a subject is broad, an angle provides for a unique point of view. As an example, a subject is “weight loss” while an angle is “how to lose weight while still enjoying your favorite desserts”
Which of the two do you think is more interesting and brings more focus to your writing?
– Who is your target reader?
I recommend using this formula: “My target reader is X who does Y”
A mom who deals with a child who has ADHD
A computer newbie who wants to learn how to backup files using FTP
A small retailer who wants to promote his newly-opened shop online
It’s also ideal to create a reader’s persona at this stage. Think of someone you already know or craft an imaginary friend who represents your ideal reader. Below is the information you want to define when writing your reader’s persona but feel free to add more details that you think will help.
Goals and Dreams
How did he/she found your post?
Motivation for reading your post
– What do you want your post to achieve?
Do you want it to educate your readers about something? Persuade them to consider a counterintuitive advice? Sign up to your email list?
– What is my word count?
This is your gauge for measuring how much research you should do.
Step 2: Gather sources
This is the time when you put on that detective hat and engage in data mining. But don’t go overboard! Set your time to 60 minutes for gathering sources. This should give you enough time to collect the information you need.
Also, keep in mind the angle that you are targeting. This should narrow down your focus and help you filter out irrelevant sources. You don’t want to collect lots of web pages only to find out later that you can’t use them.
When collecting sources, look for the following:
– Research studies
– Expert quotes
– Personal anecdotes
– Case studies
Here’s an in-depth guide on using these sources for your content.
Step 3: Read
Once the 60 minutes are over, stop. It’s time to look at the sources you have collected and read them.
This is the stage where you feed yourself with the new information. Make sure to read in a quiet place with no distractions.
Before reading, take a good scan of the source to prep your brain for the information you are about to learn. This is like reading the summary at the end of a book’s chapter before reading the chapter in full. You start by looking at the big picture then diving into the details.
Additionally, consider using a tool like Readsy regularly. It’s a nifty speed reading program by Spritz that displays your text in a unique format allowing you to read quicker than the average speed of a user. With practice, you can easily get past the average 300-words per minute with good comprehension.
Step 4: Process
And now for the critical step. Here is where the precious retention we were talking about earlier comes in. This spells the difference between the blogger who can write confidently throughout and someone who struggles at every line let alone start the actual writing process.
In this stage, you don’t write the draft yet. Instead, you think things through.
Daphne Gray Grant, a writing coach I follow calls this step Thinking and Rethinking. She considers it important enough to dedicate an entire chapter to it in her book 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better.
In essence, this is the stage where you reflect upon the new information and make sense out of it.
So how do you process the information you just collected?
– Step away from the computer and grab a pen and paper. I personally find that keeping a distance from the computer after facing it for hours clears my mind and allows for new insights.
– Outline or mindmap
– Freewrite. Write about the information you’ve extracted from your sources. Make sure you’re not copying your source word by word. It’s important that you add your own interpretation and voice.
Don’t worry about grammar and punctuation. They don’t even have to be complete sentences. Just write what’s in your mind about the things you’ve learned.
During this stage, you may need to revisit your sources from time to time. This is fine.
Depending on the nature and length of your piece, you may find that you need more time to do research – that is, collecting and reading more articles, studies, and other materials.
Feel free to do this. But don’t give yourself a generous time or you’ll find yourself being pulled by one site after another until you exhaust yourself. Give yourself 15 or 30 minute increments of additional research time.
Remember, your energy is better used processing information than aimlessly collecting one resource after another.
By this time you’ve already retained your topic better than if you just collect sources and do a quick read-through.
How do you know you’ve done enough research? I like applying what I call the “Teacher Test” – Do I know my topic well enough that I can confidently teach this to a group of people?
If the answer is no, then chances are I did it wrong. Either I didn’t collect enough information or I haven’t done enough processing of the things I learned.
During the Processing stage, you may have developed a clear structure in mind. Once you’ve reached this, it’s time to write. I recommend Danny Inny’s method:
Write the headline: This is the angle of your post
Write the hook: This is usually the hardest part to write. So don’t feel like you need to start with a perfect intro. Start with the best you have in mind and move on to the other parts. You can come back to this later.
Here’s a tip for quickly getting past that “How do I start my post?” hurdle: Have a go-to intro. It could be a quote, a question or describing your readers’ problem in all its gory details. Choose just one and apply this every time you start your post.
Outline the subheads
Here is where you lay out the framework of your post by writing down the subheads. The standard template is:
- The problem
- The solution
- The solution in detail
- Conclusion: wrapping up what you just said
Fill the missing pieces. This should be easy. No need for guesswork because you already know what goes into each.
Stop Struggling With Research
For many bloggers, research can be more taxing than the writing itself. It often involves countless hours of digging the internet for the right facts and concepts.
But it doesn’t have to be so time-consuming and daunting. If you do it right, retaining information will be quicker. You’ll be writing your post with a clear direction and present your research in the best possible way.
So follow the above mentioned pointers and you’ll notice your fingers flying across the keyboard with ease and confidence.
How well do you know your topic before you start to write? Share your thoughts in the comments below.