Growing up, I thought only people who loved writing could be professional writers.
Now, I realize writers need to love numbers just as much. It’s good to have the writing chops that make for an interesting piece; one that convinces readers to stick around and learn about the topic at hand.
But digging into research reports, finding data, and statistics is a large part of my job as a freelance writer. It makes a great piece of writing 10x stronger (and more believable) when you get concrete evidence to back you up.
The only problem? Research is hard. Half the battle is knowing where to look.
This guide shares exactly that. It’s my trusty list of researching hacks that I use to write $1,500+ blog posts for my freelance writing clients.
How long should you spend researching?
Speaking of research, something surprised me when I was fleshing the outline for this piece you’re reading.
Data from Orbit Media shows that bloggers spend 9.5% of their time on research and planning. For most writers, the bulk of their time gets wrapped up in preparing images, editing, and of course, writing.
Unless you know the topic inside out (and have spent time learning beforehand), how can you write about a topic you’re not familiar with?
It’s this lazy approach to research that churns out lazy content. Google the keyword you’re targeting, copy the same subheadings as every other result, and repeat. Nothing groundbreaking, resulting in equally un-groundbreaking content.
I’d argue that research should be a bigger–if not, the biggest–part of the puzzle.
Personally, I spend 4 to 5 hours researching a blog post (compared to 2-3 hours writing it). And we’re talking about lengthy pieces—most of my blog content breaks the 3,000-word mark.
I approach research by treating it as its own task that comes before writing. The goal is to have all of your research in one document so you can open it and write. Then, it’s a matter of turning your bullet points into sentences and paragraphs.
Writer’s block disappears, your content gets better, and the words flow smoother when you’re not spooked by a blank Google Doc.
“Learn to research well and you’ve won half the battle with writing quality long-form pieces.”
12 ways to research for an article
Good research is new, up-to-date, fresh, and relevant. But as we touched on before, knowing where to look for recent data is the hardest part.
You open a new Google Doc and the white space overwhelms you. It’s your job to turn that blank page into a 3,000-word piece of content. Where do you even start?
This is the exact research process I use for creating $1,500+ blog posts:
- Find facts and data points
- Look into research studies
- Use Google Books
- Interview experts in the space
- Make friends with freelance PRs
- Find snippets on Twitter
- Subscribe to industry newsletters
- Dig into forums
- Transcribe podcasts
- Find good examples
- Keep a swipe file
- Ask your client
1. Find facts and data points
Let’s kick things off with the most obvious starting point for research: Google.
Knowing how to phrase something in Google to find the exact thing you want is a skill all writers need to refine. Enter the right search string and you’ll find pages upon pages of relevant studies that’ll teach you about the topic you’re writing about.
So, what do those search strings look like? Here are some examples:
- “State of [topic]”
- “[Topic] report”
- “[Topic] survey”
- “[Topic] statistics”
- “[Topic] case study”
- “[Topic] examples”
Make sure you’re getting the freshest data possible (no 2012 statistic round-ups) by going to Tools > Past Year.
💡 Outside of the location your target audience is in? Use a VPN to see search results for their country. Since I’m in the UK and my clients are US-based companies, I use NordVPN to find statistics on American consumers.
You can also do a site:search for reputable sites in your industry that cover the topic. Make a list of publications in your freelance writing niche that include statistics in their own content, such as:
Plug their URL into this Google search string to find data they’ve published on the topic: site:URL.com + topic
Don’t just rely on Google’s main results page. Another underrated data source is Google News.
PR teams often create unique data as a way to hook journalists and get links back to their site. Uncover their unique data by searching Google News for “new data shows” or “survey reveals”.
Build your own data library
Writing about the same industry over and over again? Cut down the data hunt by building your own resource library. This can be as simple as a Google Sheet or Notion board with:
- A link to the to the ungated report
- Who published it
- Topics discussed
(If you turn the “topics discussed” column into a multi-select field in Notion, you’ll be able to filter your results by topic: retail, DTC… you get the gist.)
⚡️ We did this for you. The Peak Freelance community has its own resource and data library with 50+ reports on marketing, finance, technology, and more. Get an All Access membership for immediate access.
2. Look into research studies
Similar to data, research studies give concrete evidence to an article.
Let’s say you’re writing about the layout of a retail store, for example. Your goal is to share five layout tips to encourage impulse buying. Common sense says psychology plays a role in how people interact with items in a store.
Find any research studies done by universities or students to corroborate that point on Google Scholar, such as:
- “Between 40 and 80% of purchases fall into the impulse category.”
- “Sales promotion and store layout significantly influenced impulsive buying behavior.”
- “Shoppers who perceive the store atmosphere more positively are expected to spend more time in the store and make impulse purchases.”
💡 Bonus: Found a strong research report locked behind a paywall? Download the Unpaywall Chrome plugin to bypass it.
3. Use Google Books
I’m not a reader by nature. But I think writers are so smart when they reference a bunch of research that I’ve never even heard of before–including quotes from books I haven’t (and will probably never) read.
The Google Books tool helps me do this within my own writing.
It scans thousands of books to pull quotes from authors talking about that topic. You can reference that in your content to add a third-party opinion.
With this research tip, writers don’t need to spend hours reading books, highlighting your favorite parts, and forgetting about them. Just use this tool to find exactly what you need from books you might never have read.
4. Interview experts in the industry
A great way to boost the shareability of your published content is to include unique quotes.
Give experts the chance to submit a unique quote for you to include in your content. You get third-party, unbiased quotes that support the points you’re making. They get a backlink in return, which usually means they’re happy to help with content promotion.
Freelance copywriter Garrett Oden also recommends keeping a running list of expertise to lean on: “I have a list of experts for one industry who have opted into being part of the expert panel group. Once every month or so, I’ll email some questions out and get a handful of responses that I can use in pieces I’m working on. I get industry insight; they get backlinks. A win-win.”
If you don’t have tons of existing knowledge on whatever topic you’re writing about, start here. Learn from people who are more experienced than you. Have them direct the structure of your content.
(Bear in mind that it’s important to ask for expert quotes a few days before you make a start on the outline. It takes a few days to collect responses.)
5. Make friends with PR people
Speaking of expert quotes, source them by making friends with people in the PR space.
These people have one goal: to secure press coverage for their clients. An expert quote qualifies as that. It positions their client as an expert and secures a link—two things they’re measured on and get paid for.
Needless to say, PR folks and freelance writers should be working together more often. It’s a win-win for everyone involved: They get their clients quoted in publications; you get unique quotes for your content.
But there’s a caveat: Find PR people who respect you and your work.
Ignore PR people who come to your inbox and say “my client sells this amazing thing, write about them!!!” You’ll find plenty of them on HARO—most of which just want you to help them secure coverage without giving any value in return. No thanks.
Instead, find specialist PR agencies or freelancers who only serve clients in the area(s) you write about. Reach out to them when you’re working on a new story.
6. Find snippets on Twitter
Twitter is a goldmine for finding unique content (i.e. the stuff you won’t find repeated in all 10 results on Google’s first page.)
There’s a smarter way to find this content than scanning tweets from millions of Twitter users. Searching “retail trends” and discovering a relevant tweet from a retail reporter will be like finding a needle in a haystack.
…Unless you know where to look.
Here’s my workaround to curate your own high-quality search results:
- Follow experts on Twitter in whichever niche you write about.
- Search the topic you’re writing about.
- Apply the “people you know” search filter.
Now you have a list of reputable experts talking about that topic. Pull their quotes into your own content for a third-party, unbiased opinion to corroborate what you’re saying.
Take this a step further and use the People tab if you want to find people to quote/interview. Just like that, you have your own personalized, pre-vetted list of people to reach out to. Talk about making it easy to find sources.
💡 This is why it’s important to optimize your own Twitter bio. Mention that you’re a freelance writer for [niche] so people using this process to find freelance writers can discover you.
Don’t want to crowd your Twitter feed? Spend some time reading through each influencer’s tweets. Use the Bookmarks feature to create your own Twitter swipe file, saving anything you might want to reference in the future.
7. Subscribe to industry newsletters
If you’re pulling on news stories in your content, or you’re writing a trends piece, this is an underrated research hack:
Subscribe to popular newsletters in your industry. Search your inbox for the topic and see a full list of recent stories and press releases—both of which is content you likely won’t see published on the internet.
⚡️Pro Tip: Don’t want these newsletters crowding your inbox? Have emails containing the word “subscribe” automatically go to a Newsletters folder. Or create a new email address if you’d rather keep your work inbox a no-newsletter zone.
8. Dig into forums
Sometimes, research will lead to a dead end.
There are certain topics that nobody covers in-depth on their website. But even for those that do, you run the risk of only seeing a biased company view of the topic.
That’s where forums and online communities come into play.
Searching similar terms on Reddit, for example, pointed me to this thread. It was posted by a Grammarly user who had their own concerns, with other people chiming in below:
The same concept applies to basically any topic you’re writing about.
The top 10 results for “SEO tips”, for example, are likely written by companies who have SEO tools. They want to rank for that keyword to mention their tool–which isn’t any good for you if you’re writing for a competing software company.
However, online communities like:
…can help you find real people (not companies) talking about that subject.
Take a look at the questions they’re asking and the answers they’re getting from other community members. Can you package that into your blog post? If so, add it to your research doc.
9. Transcribe podcast episodes with experts
Not everyone has the time to respond to a writer’s quote request. That’s especially true if your content will be published on a lesser-known website.
Workaround this—while still getting expert quotes—by transcribing popular podcast episodes.
“Find podcasts with interviews featuring experts in the field you’re writing about. Transcribe and highlight top takeaways and examples. These are especially good for pulling real world examples and stories.”
Stuart Balcombe, co-founder of Procket
⚡️Pro Tip: Impress your clients by pulling quotes from conversations they’ve had on their own podcast. Not only will you showcase their employees as experts, but it’s a natural way to build internal links. Win-win.
10. Find good examples
Dropbox is mentioned in almost every blog post about referral marketing. Same with Dollar Shave Club, which appears in 90% blog posts on growing a DTC brand. Amazon is listed as an example of social proof wherever you look.
These examples are obviously good examples. But they’re boring. We’ve seen ‘em all before.
Instead, search for lesser-known brands who value your support more than multi-million dollar brands (unless that’s who you’re writing for, of course.) It’s a win-win for everyone: the small business gets well-needed support and attention; readers get fresh examples they’ve never seen before.
So, how do you find fresh examples? Browse aggregator sites like:
“For people who write about ecommerce, ShopiStores has a top list of Shopify stores. It came in handy for me to find coming soon page examples. I just did operator searches (site:site.com “coming soon”) on all the top websites recommended by ShopiStores. Almost all had one I could use as an example.”
Michael Keenan, freelance writer
Learn how to find and use examples that make your writing stand out in this masterclass:
11. Keep a swipe file
Talking of examples, store any interesting ones you find within a copywriting swipe file. It’s a private curation of examples you can pull on when producing new content.
Create yours in a tool like:
Whichever platform you use to build your swipe file, go through this research process and bookmark interesting things you find. Even if you don’t have a place to use a tweet, statistic, or photo just yet, a swipe file keeps it safe until you find the opportunity to do so in future.
⚡️Don’t have time to start your own swipe file from scratch? All Access members get access to Peak Freelance’s Community Swipe File. There are hundreds of tweets, photos, and examples in a range of industries. It’ll cut your research time down significantly.
12. Ask your client to get involved
Freelancers often default to the idea that they’re responsible for creating an entire piece of content. It’s your job to take a content brief and turn in a draft before the agreed deadline, right?
Truth is: Collaboration is the secret to great content. Pro blogger Ryan Robinson agrees:
So, what does this client collaboration look like? You could ask clients for:
- Introductions to subject matter experts on their team.
- A list of customers or case studies to use as a source of fresh, relevant examples.
- Data their own research team has collected on customers (i.e. the percentage of customers who’ve raved about the feature you’ve mentioned.)
Learn more about collaborating with clients—and how to do it the right way—in episode #3 of the Peak Freelance members podcast.
The added bonus of outlines for freelance <> client relationships
A content outline is the secret sauce for anyone writing content.
You’ll overcome fear of the blank page and create content that’s interesting, well-researched, and enjoyable to write. But there’s an added bonus for freelancers working with clients (and vice versa.)
A fleshed content outline acts as your final check-in point before the freelancer writes the full draft.
There’s nothing worse than having a client send a project brief, and each side having their own interpretation.
Let’s put it into practice. A freelance writing client sends an email saying “help us rank for ‘SEO tips’”. They think it’s obvious that the content should be in a listicle format, but you spend four hours writing a how-to post.
In the end, the client doesn’t like it, and you’ve wasted four hours doing something you’ll need to:
- edit extensively, or
- re-write again for an extra fee.
A solid content brief can help ease those problems.
But sending an outline before the full draft gives you both the chance to check you and the client are both on the same page. There’s no “oops, I thought you’d cover that,” or “you’ve missed this” when the final draft is submitted.
You (and your client) know exactly what you’re going to cover with an outline. Anything you’ve missed/needs tweaking gets squished before you spend more time writing.
That’s why I show my process in response to enquiry emails:
Not only that, but having an established network of experts helps freelance writers demand higher rates.
In her Value Proposition Masterclass, pro freelance writer Kaleigh Moore says: “Talk about your network; talk about how you can leverage that as part of your service offering.”
“This reinforces your positioning as an expert: you know people in the space, you’re happy to reach out to them and do that outreach component where you’re getting fresh quotes that improve the quality of the piece and also help make it more shareable. Those are both two no-brainer things for anybody hiring a writer.”
Stellar research = stellar content
Clients are willing to pay premium rates for writers with a solid research process.
Just make sure you factor this extended research process into your turnaround times. Give yourself enough time for experts to respond, listen to a podcast on the topic, and dive into research studies. #NoMissedDeadlines is a team we should all be a part of.
Wondering how to turn your new research document into a fully-fleshed blog post?
Our Advanced Writing Crash course walks you through:
- How to write an introduction and conclusion
- Copywriting formulas to make your content more engaging
- Developing your own tone of voice