Pick the Whole Orchard: How to Batch Your Freelance Research

02/06/2020

Freelancers often avoid research for fear of losing money: good research takes time, and more time spent on a piece of writing means less time for other pieces of writing. In Part II of this Creative Research series, you’ll learn how to batch your research to write multiple articles out of a single research session.

Illustration of author showing how to batch your research

“If you build a good barn, no idea is wasted.” Illustration by Josh Quick.

Consider apple farmers. They don’t just sell apples. They sell apple-picking experiences, with premium pricing for pick-your-own apples. They build corn mazes and playgrounds. They make apple cider, apple fritters, apple pies, and apple jam. They host farmers’ markets, weddings, and family fun days. In short, they use all parts of each apple and every inch of the farm.

When you spend hours researching a single article and never write about the topic again, you’re picking just one apple and forgetting the rest of the orchard, which means you’re wasting a lot of good material. To be a stronger researcher—and writer!—you need to clear one tree at a time, use every apple, and build a good barn.

Clear one tree at a time

Imagine if you drove to the orchard parking lot, hopped on the tractor, put three apples in your bag, then rode the tractor back to the parking lot, drove home, and ate your apples, all before returning to the orchard again tomorrow for three more apples.

That is what you’re doing every time you research for a single piece of writing: perhaps you are googling, finding an appropriate database, verifying what you find, and weaving it into your article. Or maybe you’re using multiple approaches. Either way, it’s probably inefficient, and it might not even be good research. Some might even call it apple-picking your data.

You wouldn’t go to the orchard and pick three apples; you’d pick a bushel or two. Take the same approach to researching. Focus on your honeycrisp—the topic that will keep you sustained for hours at a time—and gather bushels and bushels of research.

Use every apple

Once you know how to batch your research, you’ll need to make full use of the information you gather. A dropped apple doesn’t get thrown away. It gets squeezed. You should think of your research the same way: an idea that doesn’t make it into the first article can probably be used to make another one.

One great way to use your batched research is to write a series. A question about why parents seemed so terrified of Cheerios would have made an interesting article. Broken down into smaller questions, it made for an even better 4-part series that used a lot more research. Pitching your research as a series means you can get multiple articles—and more steady freelancing pay—out of the same original search.  

Just like not all apples are good for pie, not all of your research will be useful for the same genres of writing, but most research can inform at least a few different types of articles. Ask yourself what different genres you can write the same research into. The research that helped you craft an op/ed about parents and reading could inform a satirical list of ways to organize your child’s bookshelves. A rant about astronaut ice cream directed at parents may lend itself to a magazine feature explaining astronaut ice cream to kids.

Build a good barn

Batching your research means you’ll likely get more research than you need. If you build a good barn, no idea is wasted. It’s just waiting until you can figure out what to do with it.

If you don’t already have a method to store your unused ideas, choose one to try with your next research topic. You never know when a rejected idea will turn into a new piece. This series about how to batch freelancing research came from a cut paragraph from a different article about asking good research questions.

Your metaphorical barn will be most useful to you if it is searchable. A digital note-taking app like Evernote or an analog set of well-labeled file folders on your desk can help you store good ideas.

Your barn will serve you best if you check it every 2-3 months to see what surprises are in there. But if you leave ideas longer than that, it’s fine. The best part about this barn is that you never have to clean it. The barn will keep expanding along with your ideas.

Once you’ve become more familiar with how to batch your research and have a stockpile of ideas, you’ll want a fresh set of eyes to help you look at it. Stay tuned for Part III, which will help you hire a young research assistant.

Miss Part I of this series? Here’s “Researchstorming: How to Research Before You Write.”

author photo
Stephanie Loomis Pappas (Guest Blogger)

Stephanie Loomis Pappas is a professor turned write-from-home parent committed to debunking all the bad parenting advice on the internet. At snackdinner, she offers research tips to help make readers better parents and people.