One thing being a technical writer did was give me a better, more targeted approach to research. This method of study isn’t limited to the content I learn on the job, it’s also useful for extracurricular activities such as vacation. Think I’m kidding? Read on.
What Do You Plan to Do with the Information?
The type of information I need is driven by the point of the exercise.
On the job:
- What am I writing?
- Who am I writing for?
- Why am I writing?
- How do I want them to react once the audience is done reading?
- Where am I going?
- For how long?
- What do I intend to do once I get there?
- How do I want to feel once I get there?
The scope of what I intend to write or do determines how many sources I think I’ll need. A one-page summary can be fed through 2-3 primary sources. A full paper could require ten or more, from books to websites to papers. Likewise, a short trip (2-3 days) might take up a few websites, whereas a longer trip, especially somewhere I’ve never been, will involve several books, websites, and other sources. I want to be ready!
What’s Your Background on the Subject?
If I know absolutely nothing about a topic, depending on my timeline, I’ll go to Wikipedia (as a starting point, not a primary source) to get the layman’s description. Then I’ll start pulling primary sources from there.
Because I’m a lover of dead-tree books, I will also start sorting through Amazon.com or the library–in either a work or play context.
The less I know, the more I’m likely to read just so I don’t say or do something exceptionally stupid. On a work task, this can include researching the scientific theories involved, the engineering history, the associated outputs of the work, and the applications of the work in other fields. In a vacation context, this research can include digging into the local history, climate, language, and foods.
How Do You Need to Organize Your Information?
Depending on how I’m organizing my content, I will end up targeting my research in a similar fashion. I’ll gather folders or piles by order of time, spatial order, or other coordinated method. My vacation research, in a similar fashion, will end up being organized by where I’m going and in what order.
Sometimes I’ll have a narrative structure already set up. I’ll know what I want to cover in a given document and in what order. I’ll write what I know or write the “big picture” first, and then I’ll focus my research on specific holes in the content rather than reinventing the wheel. For a vacation, I’ll often have the “structure” in mind, then I’ll dig deeper on places that interest me enough to get more specifics.
Including the Numbers
On a technical writing job, especially the engineering jobs I handle, there are often numbers to interpret (there’s no other way for an English major to describe it). Some of the numbers’ meaning will be self-explanatory through the rest of my reading; sometimes I’ll have to ask a subject matter expert (SME) what a particular number means.
In a vacation context, if I’m going overseas, I’ll need to know the conversion rate for currency and I’ll need to refresh my memory on Celsius temperatures since I spend most of my life on the U.S./Fahrenheit scale. This becomes important if only so I know how or what to pack! Other numbers I need to keep in mind are actual costs, distances (in kilometers), street route numbers (if applicable), train numbers, or flight numbers. Honestly, I’m only an average driver here in the States, so I don’t trust myself with driving on the other side of the road or among unfamiliar road signs.
When Have You Researched Enough?
I’ve answered this question in a work context before, but the short answer is, “when I have enough words on the page to answer the intent of the customer/assignment.”
For a vacation, I’m well aware that I’ll never really read everything possible, nor will I be able to see everything I’d like on a given trip/tour/excursion. That’s okay. If anything, the vacation will inspire me to read or research more when I get home, especially if I didn’t get a chance to ask enough questions while I was on site. Note that I always keep my journal handy–especially on site–because it’s a great opportunity to record insights from a SME, local, or person at least familiar with the area.
I suppose all of these habits were born out of my love of learning. It would be difficult to say now whether I started these habits on the job or before I ever started working. I was a bookish kid growing up, but earning a living as a technical writer required me to hone and focus my thirst for learning so I could create a specific result. I’ve been told that my style of research also works for fiction writing as well. In any case, while some folks might find all this reading about or for a vacation “too much like homework,” for me, it is an excellent way to get acclimated to where I might go and what I might do or learn. May your approach work as well for you.