In Writing for developers

A couple of days ago I had to write the most tricky article ever.
Not only did I have no clue about the topic, but also most information I found was in Spanish. And let me tell you: Google translate works great, but sometimes it creates strange translations, and you don’t know what to believe anymore. Additionally, I noticed that sometimes too much information can make me feel dizzy or even overwhelmed – do you know that feeling?
Luckily everything went great (although I got a few headaches) and the article got published.

That’s because I have a plan at hand when it comes to doing research! With this strategy I can write about anything, even if I don’t know the tiniest bit about the topic.

My step by step guide will hopefully come in useful next time you need to to go into heavy-research-mode!

1. Get a general idea about the topic

If you have no clue about what you’re going to write about, it’s good advice to look into the matter beforehand. It’s no good to head completely clueless into your in-depth research. A starting point can be Wikipedia, but it depends on your topic. You could also google “what is X” or head to the product’s website to get the fundamental information.

2. Create an outline for your article

Now that you know what you’re dealing with, you should think about what you need to tell your readers in your text. Usually, a topic can be broken down into several parts, for example into a list, like in the blog post you’re currently reading. Those parts are your outline and also help you with defining your subheadlines (see my article about structuring blog posts for more information).
Doing this gives you already a sound idea of what you’re going to end up with and is essential for knowing what data you need to look for.

3. Define a goal for each section

Take a look at your outline: What should your users gain from reading each section? Maybe they should learn how to set up a development environment for your tutorial or gain insights into how you work with designers etc.
Defining a goal not only helps you with making sure you research the right information: At the end, when you’ve finished writing, you should check if what you wrote aids to achieve this objective.

4. Write down questions you need to answer

When you’ve written down your goals, think about what information you need so your readers end up with what you anticipated for them.
A handy way of doing this is to write down questions you need to answer in each section (each part of your outline).
Let’s say you want to write an article about JavaScript for beginners. Right at the beginning, you want to tell them about some general stuff so your questions can look something like this:

What is JavaScript?
Who develops it?
How many developers use JS?

Try to be as specific as possible! Don’t worry if you come up with 30 questions per section – it doesn’t matter. The more straightforward the issue and the shorter an answer can be, the more comfortable your research process will be. You’ll get why this is important after reading the next steps below.

5. Consider possible knowledge sources

Before you dive into doing research, you should think about where you can retrieve the desired information.
Naturally, you can find most information on the internet. But don’t limit yourself to that.

  • If there’re books with more in-depth data, plan a visit to the library.
  • Do you know someone who is an expert in the field you’re writing about? Take notes, so when you’re stuck in your research, you can ask this person for help.
  • See if there’s a meetup near you which would be interesting for your topic.

Of course, if you write a short blog post, you may want to keep research efforts as low as possible. But getting data from different sources is a good idea when you’re writing, e.g., an ebook.
In the end, it’s up to you where you want to go and seek knowledge!

6. Find the answers to your questions

It’s reading time! See that you can find the answer to every question you wrote down before and take notes. It makes no sense to try to keep all the information you’re gathering in your head. Often it’s handy to copy sentences or passages from your research source and create a document including all the data you need.

My best tip for this point: handle one question at a time. If you start looking up 3 things simultaneously, you’ll likely spend an hour researching without getting the results you wanted.
(It’s the ‘Wikipedia-Effect,’ where you want to look up something about Malta and end up reading about ionization energy one hour later.)
Of course, you shouldn’t ignore relevant information for other questions when you encounter them. Copy-paste this data into your research document and come back to it later, when you work on the corresponding question.

A dictionary with focus on the word focus.
Photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

The easiest way to find information: google your questions, choose some results, open them in a new browser tab and start scanning the content for information.

6.1. Save time by scanning first

When you’ve found a promising article or report that fits your search, first scan over the article’s content. Read headlines, text in bold font, lists, whatever catches your eye. Don’t forget to use Control/Command+F to search for keywords! Then decide if the information you’re seeking is in there. If yes, then read the article or essential parts of it, else close the browser tab and head on to the next.
If you go into full-reading-mode right after entering a page, and the data you wanted is nowhere to be found you wasted precious time!

7. Test: Can you answer your questions?

Look at the cut-outs you’ve collected in your research document, rearrange them, and see if they provide you with enough information to answer your questions. If so – good job, you completed your research!
If not – do not worry, you’ll get there (see next step)!

8. Refine your questions & get back to research

So, if you couldn’t answer all your questions, it’s time to see if you need to rewrite them to find appropriate research material. Maybe you need to refine the queries or create more of them.

Let’s say your question was:
Is JavaScript an excellent choice to learn in 2019?

You can’t search the answer for this question without breaking it down into several queries like:

  • Are there awesome language-specific updates coming?
  • Why do you need JS?
  • How many JS developers are there (maybe I can find some statistics)?
  • Is JavaScript a trending topic on Google Trends?
  • etc.

Looking up the information, you need to answer these new questions is way more practical and straightforward. You then know what you’re looking for, and therefore you don’t need to overthink during your research á la ‘ugh, don’t know, is this information relevant?’.

Wrapping things up

I think the most crucial point is to remember not to start multitasking and keep doing one thing at a time. Consequently, you won’t feel overwhelmed so quickly and know that you’re dealing with manageable parts.
Let me know if you have some tips to share about your research routine!

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