How Freelance Article Writers Can Find Facts Fast — And Make Sure They’re True

These research tips will help you find quality data for your article.The strongest magazine articles usually include data from a reliable source to back up the points you’re making. Without solid information, your article doesn’t come off as credible.

But with all the information bouncing around on the Internet, it can be difficult for freelance article writers to know where to find facts from reliable sources. The key to avoiding timewasting browsing is to know what you’re looking for, and what sorts of sources you can trust.

Here are research tips for four major resources that provide the solid facts and figures you need to create great articles:

1. Governments

Federal governments often have a wealth of data online. For U.S. healthcare data, for example, government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health offer tons of verified survey data based on large study samples. Study size is one of the important factors that lend a survey credibility.

The sheer volume of facts and figures compiled by the government can be overwhelming, though. For a shortcut to the info you need, check out USA.gov to search for information by topic and/or government agency. Or try Data.gov to search on topics from agriculture to public safety.

There’s also Government Information Online (GIO). GIO lets you email a librarian questions about information collected by government agencies at all levels. Nice! GIO is a free resource — but librarians may take up to 48 hours to respond.

If you need information specific to a particular region or market, take a look at state, county, province, or city government data sources. Find and browse the directory of state or local agencies to get started. If need be, reach out to the media contact at the agency that best fits the bill, and let them know what you’re looking for – they can help direct you.

2. Major national organizations

Whatever the topic you’re writing about, chances are there’s a large, longstanding national organization or publication devoted to it. There are three reliable types of sources here:

  • Nonprofit groups like the American Cancer Society, or the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship
  • Industry associations such as the American Institute of Certified Professional Accountants
  • Special interest organizations like the National Quilting Association

Check out the organization’s press releases to see what’s new. Some groups also post general information or fast facts about their industry or cause that may be helpful. If you don’t see what you need on the website, most larger organizations have a public relations or communications person to contact.

3. Look to the trades

Trade publications that cover a specific industry or interest, such as Nation’s Restaurant News, are a great place to research and discover who issues industry surveys that are considered reliable. Sometimes, the trade pubs themselves conduct industry research or issue rankings of top companies – and they’re a good, impartial information source.

4. Name-brand studies and surveys

Citing a study or survey’s findings is a great way to support your point of view. Well-known research organizations include the Pew Research Center, which focuses on areas including politics, social trends, religion, and technology, and Gallup, a public opinion research firm.

Many industries will have specialized market-research firms that concentrate on their sector and can be highly useful for finding detailed information. Examples include Technomic, which conducts restaurant-industry surveys, and FranData, which compiles data on franchising. Be wary of small or startup organizations claiming to be authoritative survey sources.

Trace it to the source

If you see a study cited in another article, be sure to locate your own copy of the original study, poll or survey. Magazines and websites don’t like it when you cite a secondary source that may well be one of their competitors, instead of finding the original data.

  • Bad: “MSNBC reports that a Scripps Institute study found…”
  • Good: “A study of 2,000 cancer patients conducted by the Scripps Institute found…”

By finding the original research, you won’t rely on another writer’s work – and you may spot additional information you can use.

You may also find out that study has been updated since the piece you read, or superseded by a more recent one. You could also discover that the site or magazine where you originally found this fact has misquoted the original study! Recheck the figures to make sure you don’t repeat any errors.

Sources to watch out for

A word about that popular online encyclopedia written by volunteers: Wikipedia should never be used as a source, because it’s compiled by anonymous writers whose work may be inaccurate, plagiarized, or altered by other users.

That said, Wikipedia’s entries can provide a general understanding of the topic. More authoritative sources can often be mined from the footnotes and external links used to assemble a Wikipedia page.

Finally, be on the lookout for self-interested, small studies conducted by companies. These are increasingly popular, thinly disguised promotions you should avoid. A chocolate company’s survey of 100 customers that concludes eating chocolate more often makes you feel happier doesn’t impress anyone. Don’t build your story around studies like these.

Need more article-writing tips? Win a free ticket to my upcoming 4 Week Journalism School (the only time it’ll be offered in 2015!).  There’s a contest going on the Make a Living Writing Facebook page.

Samantha Drake is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area who specializes in entrepreneurship and general interest topics.

 

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31 comments on “How Freelance Article Writers Can Find Facts Fast — And Make Sure They’re True
  1. Masood Ahmad says:

    This article provided some good hints for good online research which is a prerequisite for writing good articles.

    One thing which I can suggest for the writers is the long list of the book marks. It can be very helpful for finding the required material in this complex world of web.

  2. sham says:

    Thanks for this article. But i would like some clarifications, please. There are gigs that require secondary research at best, and others that need original research only. Why the difference? And you have suggested to not take wikipedia too seriously, although in my first work that I found, I had only limited time, so was forced to borrow from wiki, and it was alright with my client. What exactly is the difference?

    • Carol Tice says:

      It depends on the quality and goals of your client, Sham. If you’re writing SEO clickbait that’s mostly intended for search engine robots to read, and pays a pittance, sourcing isn’t so important.

      This post discusses how to source in a way that’s acceptable to national and prestigious local magazines, as well as for business projects such as white papers.

  3. Marcia Walker says:

    This is a very informative and useful article. I think it is important that all resources are verifiable and credible. It’s this kind of reminder that we all need to stay alert, current and relevant.

  4. Gales Directory is a great resource.

  5. Charley says:

    Thanks for the resources, Samantha! Another site I find helpful for getting statistics and surveys is the BLS. And I totally agree with you, I often see lots of articles — even on popular sites — that don\’t reference the original source.
    Charley recently posted…9 Epic Social Media Strategies for Promoting Your Boring BusinessMy Profile

  6. Thanks Samantha – I’ve overlooked some of the resources you listed.

    I’ll ask a source for any further info or links on the story as well.
    Williesha Morris recently posted…You’re Worth More Than $20 An Hour (& Other Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Work For Entrepreneurs)My Profile

  7. One of the premises of “writing like a pro” is having something to back up your own piece of content. This hint you provided was something I never thought to write about, Carol.

    Thanks 🙂
    Regards
    Peterson Teixeira

  8. Angela Tague says:

    Great tips! I also love using national associations/groups and government websites to back up my facts and ideas. And, good note about watching for small, self-serving studies. There are way too many of those being published!! Thanks! Angela
    Angela Tague recently posted…Get More Blog Post Readers by Using HashtagsMy Profile

  9. You cover the ground well, Samantha. I’ve found that when one is looking for trade publications and journals as sources, most public libraries provide online access (from any location with a connection) to a multitude of full-text articles with full bibliographic information. Every serious researcher needs an active library account!
    Katherine Swarts recently posted…Happy Freedom Day!My Profile

  10. Michelle says:

    Thanks for the article, Carol! Very helpful. I’ve been at this professional journalism thing for years, and these tips serve as a good reminder. Along the lines of trade pubs, I’d also like to submit scientific journals (ie. Nature, materialstoday, etc.) as a great resource, particularly for tech topics or even just supporting data and studies in “softer” topics. Thanks again!

    • Samantha Drake says:

      Thanks, Michelle. Scientific journals are a good addition to the list, depending on the topic.

  11. Louise Ochoa says:

    Thank you, Carol. I have my first article to write and I have been staring at it for a while for two reasons. I only think my resources are credible and how on earth can you have 30 tips with only 500-600 words? So this helps me a lot with part of my questions.

  12. Samantha Drake says:

    I agree that you have to consider a research source’s motives at times and cross-check information when possible. Thanks for the examples.

  13. Jack says:

    I don’t know if I’d put govt. resources at the top of the list. Govt. agencies are notorious for slanting research findings or stats for budgetary/legislative reasons.

    A great example is to look at Consumer Price Index or the cost of living: according to the federal sources, the “basket of goods” everyday people need, and is therefore a measure of how much it costs to sustain oneself in the U.S., does not consist in some ‘non essential’ things…like food, or gasoline. Food is non essential to calculating living costs?

    Another great example can be seen in trying to report on how many Americans are serving in overseas military efforts. Although federal dollars pay for thousands of independent contractors to perform myriad jobs, including armed roles as security personnel, you are not going to see them listed as part of the force structure. In other words, the official report may say there are 2,000 American personnel in a given area of the earth, and conveniently leave out that there are 1,500 contractors embedded with them.

    • Marcie says:

      I feel you on this one, Jack. I am seriously doubtful of the monthly (un)employment reports and the census data. These figures are skewed and no really disputes them.
      Marcie recently posted…Status Updates on Workbook and EbookMy Profile

      • Donyae says:

        They’re not really skewed. What it is, re unemployment is that they only track people on unemployment or other assistance. Once they drop off the system, there’s no longer anyway to track them and therefore they aren’t counted for statistics.
        Donyae recently posted…Your Flag is Racist and It Doesn’t Matter What The Colors “Really” Stand ForMy Profile

        • Marcie says:

          Thanks for the clarification, Donyae.
          Marcie recently posted…Status Updates on Workbook and EbookMy Profile

        • Jack says:

          “hey’re not really skewed. What it is, re unemployment is that they only track people on unemployment or other assistance. Once they drop off the system, there’s no longer anyway to track them and therefore they aren’t counted for statistics.”

          The problem is, that there are ways to track them. The issue comes down to conflict of interests.

          If you want to write about how many unemployed there are in the country, you would need to find real unemployment figures, which are available. It is not as if they don’t exist: it’s that the govt. uses different metrics that under-report the figures.

          If no one out there could compile real unemployment rate, then I’d say the govt. gets a pass on this one. But that’s not the case. Many organizations can and do compile actual unemployment.

          The difference is that the govt. is responsible for supposedly keeping employment up, whereas a research group is not.

          So to say again, I think we need to consider if our sources have conflicts of interests.

          The govts. of the world might indeed have “verified survey data based on large study samples,” but how objective can any entity be when it is a part of what it is studying?

          If govt. is held by many people to be responsible for the economy, then they become a factor in the economy. How will their economic forecasting look? If data suggests govt. intervention played a role in an economic downturn, is the govt. likely to start broadcasting that from the rooftops?

          So again, for me, the take home message is not only that sources need to have a wealth of data or access to resources; people need to identify what institutional interests are in play.

          You don’t ask the fox what his ‘exhaustive study’ has concluded about the security of the chicken coop.

    • Mike Johnson says:

      “Credible” is a relative term. Too often, that term means “mainstream” which is notoriously often non-credible. People in suits, in authority positions, given access to titles or media attention are often the biggest idiots or biggest liars you’ll ever meet.
      This is where good writers face a fork in the road. Do you quote a mainstream authority because your editors expect it, or do you learn enough about the topic to quote someone with a deeper knowledge of what’s really happening that may go against the status quo?
      Decades of writing and research experience has taught me that nearly everything we study closely enough, is not what mainstream conventional wisdom says it is. Casually subjugating our own mind or our readers’ minds to “credible experts” doesn’t always advance the truth.

      • Carol Tice says:

        If I have a question about this sort of thing, I usually ask my editor. One time when I didn’t I ended up in hot water — I used a major source that turned out to be the subject of a lawsuit! I get what you’re saying. Every organization ultimately has an agenda. But some are generally more trusted.

        If you’re wondering what the right flavor of ‘expert’ is for that audience, ask your editor.

      • Rob says:

        I agree with you, Mike. It’s been pretty well established that “mainstream” information is skewed to a fixed perspective. “Alternative” info can be misleading as well, so there’s really no alternative to doing research and not relying on one “reliable” source.
        Rob recently posted…Expats and DepressionMy Profile

        • Carol Tice says:

          Sometimes, if studies contradict each other, the thing to do is note that. I see Prevention do that a lot — 3 studies showed coconut oil cures anything that ails you, while one found it did nothing. That sort of thing.

          • Rob says:

            Yes, and I also consider the source. If freelance writing has taught me one thing, it’s that you can cherry-pick information to back up an argument. I could write a convincing article about the virtues of bidding sites, payday loans or just about anything else. Fortunately, I’ve never had to stoop that low, but I am aware that what I write for clients is designed to promote their products or services, so I stick with the positive.
            Rob recently posted…Expats and DepressionMy Profile

  14. Steph says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this article.

    I’ve been struggling (a lot) recently with finding credible sources to supplement articles, particularly since I’ve started writing for more reputable clients rather than content mills and one-off jobs.

    Great tips, and much appreciated!
    Steph recently posted…Think Like a Product: A Lesson In Personal BrandingMy Profile

  15. Niki Gamm says:

    My comment isn’t about this article but one a couple of days ago that I closed, thought about and then couldn’t get back in.
    Using a tape recorder for speeches/interviews. Turn the counter to zero as you’re about to begin. Then, when you hear something important, jot down a couple of words and the number on the counter. That way you don’t have to back over an entire speech/interview. If you are far away from a speaker at a meeting, tape the speech from the nearest loud speaker, again jotting down the counter number on the recorder.

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