If you’re a blogger, especially if you’re new, you might struggle to generate ideas for blog posts.
Or you’re worried you don’t know enough about your subject. That you’re not expert enough. That people won’t believe you if you challenge popular beliefs.
Maybe it’s a lack of confidence or that nagging negative voice. But sometimes you have a good reason to question your knowledge. And here’s why:
Nobody knows everything about a particular subject.
It’s just not possible, plus information and opinions change. Or you forget something or didn’t think of this or that possibility. That’s why research is important. You don’t think I write long posts about grammar—like this one—without checking the facts, do you?
Almost any blog post is better with research. And research can be as simple as reading a few articles or browsing through some books. Or it can mean digging deep for little-known facts that support your controversial opinion.
Check out these tips on how to research blog post topics and get started.
Research blog topics for ideas
Can’t think of anything to write about? Is nothing on your “blog brainstorm list” inspiring you?
Read other blogs. Browse around casually to see what other, well-established and respected bloggers are writing about. Click back over old posts, and see if something captures your imagination. Sometimes just one item in a list can get your creative juices flowing.
Browse through books and magazines. Casual research can also mean browsing through books or magazines and checking out headlines on a magazine rack. Or scan your favorite online news sources for inspiration. But where you look depends on your topic.
Are you a business or marketing blogger? Check out that section in a library or book store (online or off). What about environmental concerns? You might think environmental publications are your only resource. But philosophy, history, and even religion can be applied to almost any topic, including the environment.
Perform keyword searches. Let’s say you blog about small businesses. That covers a lot of territory. What’s your main focus or what do you enjoy writing about most? Maybe you help small business owners develop specific skills.
Try a search with keywords like “skills for small business owners” or “what do small business owners need most.” You’ll get loads of possibilities plus, at least on Google, you’ll get additional keyword ideas. You might be inspired just from those.
Use Google’s “Keyword Planner.” Create an account if you don’t have one (it’s free). And just follow instructions under “search for new keywords.” You don’t have to buy anything, but you’ll get some insight into the type of information people need.
Research to be sure of facts and expand your knowledge.
Adding value to your blog post with accurate facts and in-depth information doesn’t take long. And in many cases, it’s simple.
Just do some reading, and keep a notebook or app like Evernote handy. For me, though, I usually paste links, potential quotes, and new ideas in a rough draft. Even if I decide the topic won’t work, I might be able to rework the idea later on. (And by the way, I use a word processing app like Mac pages or MS Word for this; I don’t like to clutter and weigh down my website with drafts.)
Here’s a typical routine:
- Pick a topic
- Search online for reputable information—more on that later
- Read or browse through half a dozen or more carefully chosen articles
- Start writing
- Quote your sources directly or not
- Give credit to a quoted or paraphrased source with a link
In many cases, you already know a lot about your topic, and you can whip out a few tips or an entire post easily. But ask yourself some questions.
- Do you really know that much?
- Is your information accurate?
- Would most experts agree with you?
- If the topic is controversial, would experts on your side agree that you’ve presented the information well?
- Could something new (product, concept, method, or idea) have come out in the last few years?
- Could anything have changed recently?
Providing up-to-date information is an important part of being taken seriously by your readers.
Research for reputable sources
The sources—other authors and information—you use depend on your topic. Here’s one route to take if you’re starting from scratch on a topic you know little about.
Caution: An encyclopedia is only a starting point. Don’t assume what you read is accurate and complete, and don’t quote an encyclopedia. It’s not always a reliable information source.
However, Wikipedia in particular is usually pretty good, and encyclopedias can point you to additional, more reliable information, books, and even original research.
Take a look at all the links and cited sources in this article:
By the time you’re done with all that, you’ll be quite an expert on Halloween! And check out this guide: “Evaluating Internet Content.” It’s written for students, but every writer needs these skills.
Here’s a general rule of thumb for online research.
For Americans, sites with domain names that include .edu or .gov are usually trustworthy, but you should check publication dates, especially for technology topics. Anything older than three-four years when it comes to Internet information, for example, might be obsolete. Even at six months something could be old news, so double check with more current sources. The same applies to healthcare, pharmaceuticals, nutrition, and any field that’s constantly adding new information, products, or discoveries.
Here are some examples of American government and education sites:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – http://www.cdc.gov
Harvard University – http://www.harvard.edu
University of Florida Veterinary Research – http://research.vetmed.ufl.edu
I can’t speak for other countries because I’m not sure of the various systems. That would take a lot of research!
The UK Department of Health, for example, looks like this:
And a separate site run by that organization, the National Health Service, looks like this: http://www.nhs.uk
Cambridge University in the UK:
Government and education sites aren’t always what you need, however, or they might not provide the in-depth information you’re looking for. Learning the difference between reputable and questionable sites takes practice.
As a general guide, avoid sites that:
- have an agenda, bias, or slant whether it’s religious, political, or otherwise.
- sell a product with sales success dependent on readers believing the information, e.g. diet books or equipment, nutrition supplements, or beauty products that promise unrealistic results.
- fail to list an author or company who is responsible for content.
- are intended for entertainment purposes, e.g. tabloids and many popular magazines.
- are littered with misspelled words, typos, poor grammar, sloppy formatting, and advertisements.
- just don’t look professional.
Here’s additional information and lists of credible online sources.
Finding Sources (This site includes great tips for online searching with Google.)
Research with primary and secondary sources
The type of information you consult depends on your topic. But whether you’re using online resources, books, magazines, journals, or any other type of information, it generally falls into two or three categories:
A primary source is first-hand information. It can mean scientific research (often a peer-reviewed article that reports original research in a journal for that industry or field), creative writing such as a novel or poem, interviews, surveys, and historical documents.
Legal documents such as a birth or death certificate and divorce decrees are also primary sources. Photographs, art work, and maps belong to this category as well.
Even a blog can be a primary source, but it depends what you’re writing about. If you quote me, for example, and attribute the source to the blog page you got it from, then Simple Writing and the specific article is your primary source. But it’s tricky.
It would only be primary if your purpose is to report about me or my opinions and ideas—that applies to any blogger. Simple Writing would be a secondary source if you quoted a fact, such as a grammar or punctuation rule, because I get my facts from other sources such as The Chicago Manual of Style. And the article you’re reading right now is all secondary information because I didn’t invent any of this stuff; it’s not original thinking or concepts, even though my insights and opinions are woven in.
Secondary sources report on, analyze, discuss, or interpret primary sources.
Almost any non-fiction book or article is considered a secondary source. If someone writes a book on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, for example, Eliot’s poetry is the primary source. The book would be the secondary source unless the book reveals new insights or information considered valid by the author’s peers. In that case, a writer would consider the book a primary source.
A book about the best way to write a novel is considered a secondary source—it’s an opinion. The book may showcase some ideas that appear to be unique, but the writer typically learned most of the craft from other sources and combined them into his or her own take on things. The exception is truly original thinking that’s recognized by an author’s peers and other authorities as such.
Books about business, marketing, copywriting, personal development, and many more may seem original, but they, too, usually draw on the masters who came before them. And those masters learned from those before them and so on. But everyone puts their own idiosyncratic spin on things. That’s what makes an old idea shine like new even if it’s a secondary source of information.
Why is it important to know the difference between primary and secondary sources?
Primary sources don’t require verification. That assumes, however, you’re looking at the real thing such as a document found in a book or online. And it still needs to be cited (provide the author’s name, the title, a link, etc.).
Secondary sources must be verified or double-checked. If I told you William Wordsworth was a poet who lived and wrote in the 17th and 18th centuries, would you believe me? Would you quote me? Don’t, because it’s an intentional error. He wrote in the 1700s and 1800s, yes, but that’s the 18th and 19th centuries. (That’s easy to mix up, but you don’t want to repeat the error.)
To verify information, check accuracy in at least a few other secondary sources or go to the primary source(s).
Read more about primary and secondary sources here:
Research and give credit when credit is due
Always give credit to the source of your information. That means a name or title of article, a link, and quotation marks or an indented paragraph for more than a few sentences (see links below for tips). Never quote more than, say, four or five sentences. A large snippet is still stealing even if you give credit.
You don’t have to credit a source if the information is common knowledge.
What’s common knowledge? Well, you don’t see any direct quotes in this blog post, right? I did some research, so shouldn’t I quote someone? The answer is no. And that’s because the information is well known among many people. Some or all of this might be new to you or other readers, but it’s common knowledge for many writers (especially freelance writers), professors, students, and others who do research.
If your topic is controversial, it’s a good idea to quote an authority even if that controversial topic is common knowledge.
Let’s say your topic is feeding dogs garlic for flea control. Garlic can cause illness and even death for both dogs and cats, but some people, including veterinarians, believe small amounts are safe. In this case, you’ll have to prove your point and give valid reasons as well as specific instructions. Quoting a few experts will give you some credibility.
You’ll find controversial information on almost any subject. And any time you want to be taken seriously, controversial or not, quote a reputable source.
Learn about summarizing, paraphrasing, and direct quotes—know the difference!
Here are two great guides on using quotes and quotation marks.
Doing a little research can give you ideas for topics just when you need them. Research can also enrich a blog post with additional, in-depth information plus add credibility to your opinion. And the best part is the solid confidence of knowing you’ve got your facts straight. Sure, research takes a little time. But it’s worth it.
How much research are you doing? Do you have tips or techniques you want to share? Comments are always welcome! And share with friends if you think they’ll benefit from this information.