One Quick Research Method for Good Writing

Producing good writing that showcases your expertise requires strategic and effective research methods. After all, people listen to experts who know what they’re talking about, but even with extensive knowledge on a topic, you’ll still need to do research from time to time.

Getting the training or experience necessary to carry out research effectively isn’t something a lot of people are able to do. Never fear though, dear writers! I’ve got a solution for you that will help you know what to research and how to analyze your sources to ensure you’ve got sufficient and credible information for your writing.

The “5 W’s” Research Method for Investigating Writing Topics

We’re borrowing this one, not-so-weird (and pretty old) trick from our friends in journalism as they often use the approach to tell well-rounded stories. The 5 W’s are:

  1. Who,
  2. What,
  3. When,
  4. Where, and
  5. Why.

For our purposes, we’re going to apply the 5 W’s to determine a) what information we need for our writing and b) how reliable our sources are.

Using the 5 W’s to Collect Information for Writing Topics

Whether you’re writing an essay or a blog post, you want to include as many of the 5 W’s as you can. If you decide not to include one or more of them, I recommend having a good reason for doing so. That is, the choice to not address “what” or “where” is deliberate and well-founded.

Now, let’s take a closer look at exactly how you would apply the 5 W’s to gather data:
  • Who – Which person, persons, or groups of people are included in or will affected by your writing?
    • You’ll need to have basic biographical facts about the individual(s) featured in your writing. Ideally, you’d want to be able to write a minimum of 2-3 sentences to give your readers enough information to know how the person is relevant to your writing.
    • You’ll also want to have at least an elementary understanding of your target audience. Are they composed of other professionals? Potential clients? Fellow experts? Novices on the subject? The identities of your readers will affect your writing style, so be sure to clarify for yourself who you’re writing for.
  • What – Which event, idea, service, or so on are you discussing in your writing?
    • Similar to the “who,” you’ll need to have basic facts about whatever the “what” is in your content. In other words, be able to answer the question “What’s happening?”
  • When – Are there any dates that are necessary to support your claims or observations? Are there any dates that could affect your audience’s behavior?
  • Where – Is location relevant to your writing? If so, what information do you need to know or convey about the place(s) you discuss?
  • Why – Possibly the most important question for credible research and establishing expertise is this one: Why is this important? Or why is this happening?
    • Answering this question requires you to explain the relevance of your writing topic to your audience.

Note that none of these questions can really be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” So, by using the 5 W’s to determine what you need to research, you’ll develop a good basis for research.

Using the 5 W’s to Evaluate Information

Another way you can use the 5 W’s as a research method is to assess the validity and reliability of the sources you’re using.

Ensuring you have good sources is a hallmark of expertise, so mastering the ability to determine whether a source is reliable is a task I highly recommend you consistently prioritize.

Let’s see how we can use the 5 W’s to evaluate information:
  • Who – Who wrote the source you’re using? What sort of experience, expertise, or training do they have? Is the author or publisher known for putting out credible information? Inflammatory information?
  • What – What type of source are you looking at? Scientific article? Opinion piece on a blog? Government statistics?
    • While no source is ever perfect, I recommend largely relying on sources that are published by individuals or institutions that uphold standards of accuracy and proper citation procedures.
    • Using this standard applies to primary and secondary sources – if you use a business diary housed in a university archival collection, the source has probably been vetted as being authentic.
  • When – When was the source created or published? What dates are mentioned in the source?
    • Ensure that all the dates associated with a source—including its publication or creation date—are logical. So, for example, if you find a news article that gets several historical dates wrong, proceed carefully about using that source for your own writing.
  • Where – Where was the source published or created? Could the location have any impact on the accuracy or viewpoint of the author or publisher?
  • Why – Why did the author or publisher create or distribute the source? To inform? To persuade? To provoke?
    • Assessing why a person or institution would publish a source is one of the most important steps of evaluating a source. The intent can often reveal something about the potential biases in information.

Again, answering these questions will not be possible with “yes” or “no.” As such, the 5 W’s provide a quick and fairly reliable way for evaluating the validity and credibility of your sources.

Isn’t there a “How” in There Somewhere?

Another formulation of the 5 W’s is the “5 W’s + 1H,” meaning who, what, when, where, why, and how. The “how” is usually used to address the question of “How did something happen?”

I think this version is just as useful as the 5 W’s on their own, but I generally file the “How did something happen?” under the question of “What?” Use whichever method works best for you!

Writing and research are all about developing processes and procedures that help you produce credible, reliable, and regular content. No one approach or method is right for everyone, and you should decide for yourself what works best for you.

Just remember. Demonstrating your expertise on a subject can be substantially enhanced if you find and effectively use good sources, so be sure to deliberately develop a system that works for you.

More to Come!

Tune in next week, writers, for more discussions on writing and sounding like an expert. Until then, follow me on Twitter!

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