What “Conducting Background Research” Means in Freelance Writing

background research freelance writing nickel expert research topic


When the issue of performing “research” to write health articles or content assets arises with nurses exploring a writing career, many of them express reluctance because they recall the arduous academic research processes they had to employ to write their nursing school papers. In today’s post, I want to ease your mind by explaining that the type of “background research” you need to do as a freelance writer is nothing like what you experienced in nursing school.

Types of sources required for background research in freelance writing

To write nursing school papers, you had to dig up research studies in various nursing and medical journals and then pore over the study to extract data, conclusions, and so on – before citing it in your paper using APA style. If that brief description brought back unpleasant memories, I apologize.

For most health journalism and content writing assignments, your background research process need not look anything like that. Sure, you may want to dig up a study or two, but often you’ll be able to work from the abstract alone. And much of the time you may not even need to look at any studies at all. It depends on the topic you’re covering and what your editor or client requires.

In my experience, writing health articles or content assets only requires you to become a “nickel expert” in the subject matter. To do that, I recommend consulting a number of publicly available sources, such as:

  1. National Institutes of Health

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  3. National (or international) health associations and societies (think: American Heart Association, Susan G. Komen Foundation)

  4. Research institutions, such as Mayo Clinic or the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

  5. Reputable news outlets, such as the New York Times or NBC

That’s not a complete list. I merely wanted to illustrate the many types of non-clinical study background research you can conduct to create exceptional health content. As you can see, none of this is particularly arduous. You get assigned an article on, say, cataracts; you look up relevant information via NIH, CDC, and perhaps a health association; you read that stuff; you combine your nursing knowledge with what you’ve just learned to become a nickel expert in cataracts; you write the article to the client’s specifications. Easy peasy.

Avoid over-researching

It almost feels too easy, doesn’t it? Like, if you don’t spend hours diving deeply into dozens of randomized, double-blind clinical trial publications on cataracts, aren’t you going to produce shoddy work??

No! Of course not.

Whenever you’re conducting background research in order to write a health article or some other type of deliverable, you always need to make sure the amount and level of research is commensurate with the type of asset you’re producing. Many nurse writers grossly over-research at first because they feel they cannot possibly write an accurate 1,000-word article on cataracts without virtually becoming an ophthalmologist. Don’t do that. It’s overkill. A short article like that requires no more than a handful of sources, just enough to make you feel comfortable about producing a factual piece.

One good way to avoid over-researching is to keep your audience in mind. If you’re writing a piece on cataracts for the general public, you’ll do them a disservice by trying to delve deeply into the pathophysiology of cataracts – because their knowledge base isn’t high enough for that. They’ll want to know – in layman’s terms – what a cataract is and how it’s most commonly treated. Their literacy level may not exceed the 8th grade. They’ll want information that is easily understood and digested, not a treatise on the molecular changes that occur within the lens to make it cloudy.

As long as you feel confident that every fact you’ve included in your article is accurate, then you’ve done enough research. Don’t feel compelled to research the topic forever. Not only is this unnecessary to your writing process, but you’ll tank your hourly rate that way.

I hope this eases your mind a bit about the difference between conducting background research for an academic paper and researching a topic as a reporter or content writer!

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