The Writer’s No-Fear Guide to Getting Up to Speed on a New Topic

There’s something about the term personal information management (PIM) that sounds so abstract, so dry, so computer-y, so. . . dull. But for me, the essence of PIM is the ability to get up to speed on a new topic quickly — especially when your income and your professional reputation are on the line.

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Like other writers for hire, I welcome the chance to work with new clients. I enjoy brainstorming ideas for articles, blog posts, and books. I relish opening an email with an assignment from an editor, complete with a working title, final word count, due date, and terms of payment.

And then — the moment of truth.

The feeling of stark, paralytic terror.

Oh my God — I actually have to write this thing. And I don’t know sh*t about it.

After finding myself in this situation dozens of times in the past 30 years, I’ve developed some ways of dealing with it.

There’s nothing academic about these suggestions. They’ve saved my sanity. They’ve helped me deliver work on time and get repeat business from the people who hire me. And they can be used by students, journalists, consultants, speakers — or anyone else in a job where quickly getting up to speed on a new topic is a make-it-or-break-it skill.

Accept your emotions

Three things to remember about emotions:

  • We cannot directly control them.
  • They begin as bundles of physical sensations.
  • We can interpret those sensations in any way that we want — or simply observe them mindfully while staying in the present moment.

The third point is most important. My default mode was to focus on the most negative interpretation — sometimes to the point of absurdity: I will blow this project, lose this client, stop getting assignments, go broke, and end up financially dependent on my wife.

Of course, many other interpretations are possible, such as:

  • I’m worried about doing this assignment, but I’ve felt like this in the past and done fine in the end.
  • What I’m feeling right now means that this assignment is important to me and I want to do well.
  • What I’m feeling right now is energy that I can channel into getting this assignment done.

Another option is the “Zen” response: Release all interpretations about what you’re feeling. Just observe your physical sensations without judgment until they change. Trust me — they will. Just try it.

Search the web with a time limit

I remember the days before the Internet. Researching a topic meant schlepping your butt to a library, accessing a catalog with lousy search tools, and hoping that the materials you needed were parked on a shelf somewhere.

Now you can find reliable information with a few clicks. Just follow guidelines for judging a website’s credibility. (And avoid the bullshit industrial complex.)

Wikipedia is an okay place to start. The key word is start. If a Wikipedia article is well-written, I’ll read the whole thing to get an overview. Mainly, though, I go to the “External links” at the bottom to see what sources are cited. If they look decent, I’ll click on them.

Britannica — a real online encyclopedia with editors and fact checkers — is also worthwhile. I get free access via my local library system. Perhaps you can, too.

Don’t be afraid to go to Britannica Kids, by the way. The articles are decent. They’re useful when you want an overview of a complex topic.

Websites posted by the United States government are usually credible sources. Poke around USA.gov to find out what’s available on your favorite topics.

The key thing with web-based research is to do it in one sitting. Set a time limit and then stop. Stop even earlier if you see significant duplication —the same points being repeated in the pages that you find.

While researching, copy and paste the key sentences, paragraphs, and images into a note-taking app. To clearly identify them as quotations, put them in a bold color such as red or green. Also be sure to include the source of each quotation. If you don’t, you’re risking plagiarism — a big-time offense and reputation-destroyer.

List your questions

After mining the web, you might have some decent information. You might also have questions. That’s great. Follow these suggestions for using questions to refine your thinking and organize your writing.

Pose your questions to people

My editors often give me contact information for subject matter experts to interview. I contact them only after my initial research. I don’t want to waste their time by asking questions that are already answered in credible web or print-based sources.

If you don’t have a list of subject matter experts, then find them on your own. Go back to the web pages you uncovered, looking for authors and contact information.

I used to interview experts by phone. Today you can often reach them by email. That’s great, because you get their comments in writing without having to transcribe an interview recording.

If you do talk to an expert, keep in mind that many of them will give you their best ideas after you say the interview is officially over. People tend to relax and loosen up at this point. Don’t be in a hurry to hang up.

In addition, ask one more question that goes beyond your list. There are different ways to word this question, but they all get at the same idea:

  • Is there anything else that’s important that I haven’t asked about?
  • If you were talking to my audience on this topic, what would you focus on?
  • What questions should I be asking about this topic?

Dump your quotes into a document and organize them with subheadings

By this point you’ll have lots of quotes from your reading and contacts with experts. Copy and paste those quotes into your writing app. (Keep the original quotes in your note-taking app so that you can return to them later.)

Now step back and review what’s in front of you. Look for redundant or unimportant quotes and delete them.

Next, rearrange the remaining quotes in a logical order. They’ll cluster together to make a series of points. Put each point in a subheading and group related quotes under each heading. (For more details, see Never Face a Blank Page—Easing the Transition from Research to Writing.)

Transform quotes into original prose

Okay. You’ve got a document with the title of your article or post or chapter — and subheadings with quotes under them.

Now make this material your own. Integrate ideas from all your sources. Put ideas into your own words and add your own ideas. Throw in a few direct quotes if you want, making sure to cite the source of each one.

If you do this well, you’ll build on the ideas of others to create something that’s truly original.

Create a commonplace book

If you research and write a lot, you’ll capture many ideas from yourself and others. Don’t lose this stuff! It’s a gold mine.

Store all the material you develop over time in a single notebook or collection of notebooks that you can organize and search. Develop a continuously expanding and personally curated collection of notes that you can reuse across projects. If you write about the same topics again, you’ll have your own portable library/wiki/personal mini-Internet already in hand.

In short, create a commonplace book. You‘ll find, as Tiago Forte says, that it becomes a business asset — “a potent information weapon, its ideas and facts ready to be used in a wide variety of future contexts, at a moment’s notice.”