Organising your research for content and feature writing

By Valerie Khoo

Would you like to save time and streamline your writing workflow? Do you want to ensure that your research is organised perfectly and easy to access/find?

As a freelance feature and content writer, I often have to do a lot of research, conduct interviews, analyse reports and convey complicated information in a clear and concise way. Even when writing a fairly straightforward article, this could involve finding and reviewing multiple pieces of research and talking to several people.

So I’m often asked how I manage and file all these disparate bits of research. It’s like finding lots of puzzle pieces that you need to put together so you can create a beautifully written feature article or piece of content.

Here’s a breakdown of what I usually do using OneNote, which I love because it allows me to keep literally every single piece of the puzzle in its own folder. This is not only available via my desktop app but is also stored in the cloud so that you can access it on any device.

Let’s say I’m researching an article on family businesses. I have a notebook in OneNote for called “Articles WIP”. Within that, I’ll create a new section for each article that I’m researching. Think of those sections like “tabs” within a folder. And each “tab” or section can contain any number of pages.

Step 1: Mind-map the idea

All articles need to have some kind of logical structure so that the story can unfold to readers in a way that makes sense. Each piece of information should build on the one before. And each topic needs to be relevant to the angle of the story.

For the more complex stories, I’ll often mind-map the structure of the article, outlining the various topics/sub-topics, case studies, interviewees and so on.

Mindmapping is such a visual activity that I prefer to hand-draw my mind maps instead of using mindmapping apps.

Above: This is an example of a mindmap using the Surface Pen on my Surface Book via OneNote (which is available on both Macs and PCs).

Step 2: Research and filing

Sometimes, it can take copious amounts of research to find the information I need for an article. If I have information contained in Word docs or PDFs, I save them in the relevant section or “tab” associated with the article. That way, I can find all my research on that topic in the same spot.

Above: If I’m doing web-based research, I no longer cut and paste chunks of text. I’ll use OneNote’s web clipper to save the information in the right notebook/section.

Step 3: Interviewing people

I have to interview experts and case studies for many of the articles I write. If I’m interviewing them in person, I can do this using the recording function directly in OneNote.

Above: Keep all the MP3s for your interview with all the related research for your article.

The powerful thing about using the recording function within OneNote is the playback feature. If you are also typing notes on your computer during the interview, the audio syncs with your typing. So what does this mean?

Let’s say I’m interviewing someone and I hear a gem of a quote. I simply type something like “great quote” (or some other note to myself) in OneNote when my interviewee shares a valuable insight.

This is an incredible time-saving tool. If you do this for any “gold” quotes, then you don’t have to listen to or transcribe the entire interview. You just move the cursor to where you’ve typed “great quote” and a small “play” button will appear to the left. Press the play button and it will play the audio at the point of the interview where you made that note.

I know. Game-changer. OneNote somehow automagically syncs your typing with the audio.

Above: This is one of the most time-saving features of OneNote.

I know that some people prefer the old school approach and want to take handwritten notes instead of typing. I certainly prefer to type – but there are some situations where handwriting is more practical. Like if you’re perched on a rock while you’re interviewing someone (yes, it’s happened) and can’t balance your laptop properly. Or if you’re standing in a spot and there’s nowhere to put your laptop (I turn my Surface Book into a tablet and then hold it like a notepad.)

If you do have handwritten notes that you then want to convert to text, click “Ink to text” and your scrawl will be turned into actual text. Again, I know. Game-changer. This isn’t science fiction.

Above: Handwritten notes in OneNote.

Above: After clicking “Ink to text”.

Great record-keeping

In the past, I used to have piles of research all over the place. And I had to hang on to all of this in case editors want to query sources or fact-check documents. My desk and filing system weren’t too pretty.

While my desk and filing system still aren’t too tidy, there is definitely a lot less paper floating around because I can store it electronically all in the right spot. So if an editor does want me to double check on something, I’m not sifting through piles and piles of paperwork like I did in the past. It’s easily searchable and can be found in a matter of seconds.

Disclosure: I’m an ambassador for Microsoft Surface

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