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.


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 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.”

Going Beyond Tips to Experimental Habit Change

Much of popular literature for behavior change — both online and offline — sinks to tip-dispensing. Authors crank out reams of bulleted and numbered lists aimed at easy change and instant gratification.


Want to make more money? Hundreds of bloggers will give you quick tips for that.

Want to boost your productivity? Tip-based books for that abound.

Want to attract a lover? Tips for that are all over the Web.

Much of this stuff is curated lists of tips based on other lists of tips — second- and third-hand content based on God knows what theory or research. Sean Blanda gives it an apt name — the bullshit industrial complex.

Tips might satisfy our desire for easy wins and quick results. But what about the long-term? We run into three problems here.

Tips ignore context

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” Annie Murphy Paul writes in The Tyranny of Tips. “Sometimes a tip — the right bit of information at the right time — is a lifesaver.” More often, however, tips “skim lightly across the surface of our attention and then disappear.”

Annie claims that behavior change is often tied to context. For example, she cites a study in which kids who understood why a balanced diet promotes health made better food choices than kids who were simply told to eat certain foods.

Tips ignore character

A teacher once asked William Zinsser — author of On Writing Well — to give students some writing tips.

Zinsser’s reply: “I don’t do tips”:

Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package — a matter of character. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is a complex engine that runs on ability, ego, determination, discipline, patience, confidence, and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid.

His point applies to tips for doing anything. You can implement a “life hack” — an incremental change in behavior—and take a chance on the results. But molding character calls for the slow, steady acquisition of new skills and insights. And this is the work of a lifetime.

Tips ignore culture

Beyond individual character is the behavior of other people. Each of us is embedded in multiple cultures — the culture of our family, our coworkers, and our friend groups. These are powerful contexts that can quickly undermine our ability to implement tips.

Joe Lee, medical director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Youth Continuum, gives an example of this perspective as it applies to parents. In Recovering My Kid: Parenting Young Adults in Treatment and Beyond, he writes:

These days, so many of the parenting tips are based on superficial matters. The conversations are about finding the right activities, having enough activities, staying cool as parents, learning to talk on your child’s level, and the like…. I emphasize that parents need to invest in their family culture and maintain it over time, much like they would invest over the long-term in a savings account or a college fund. Only then will the resources be available in a family’s time of need.

A different approach — experimental habit change

We can cut through vast swaths of tips by seeing them as invitations to run personal experiments with habit change. This is the perspective of Tiago Forte, the most sophisticated thinker about productivity that I’ve found.

Why focus on habits instead of isolated tips that are implemented at random? Because, Tiago writes, habits are Minimum Viable Behaviors (MVBs) that occur in context:

They have a clear beginning, middle, and end (cue, behavior, reward), making them easy to define and identify when they appear. The good ones tend to be internally coherent and inherently rewarding, thus self-sustaining. They are situated in a physical and social context, which makes them socially acceptable and integrate relatively seamlessly into daily life.

Habits are ideal for testing. They have a binary/on-off/yes-no nature — either you do a habit or you don’t. This makes them relatively easy to measure.

Tiago gives an example — his experiments with measuring levels of happiness throughout the day. He did this as a participant in Harvard University’s TrackYourHappiness project. Via a mobile app, Tiago got notifications at random times throughout the day. These were questions such as:

  • How happy are you right now?
  • When was the last time you exercised?
  • Where are you right now?

“By cross-referencing my answers, the app generated reports of which people, places, and activities make me happiest,” Tiago adds.

With a single experiment, Tiago got past the generic happiness tips. He gathered data to discover which habits actually made a difference for him.

The same thing is possible for any of us. All it takes is a willingness to play with habit change, taking the attitude that there is no failure in the attempt — only continuous learning.

Meditate, Move, Destroy — Robert Greene on Writing

Robert Greene wrote several best-selling books, including Mastery, The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and The 50th Law (with 50 Cent). Though I have qualms about the Machavellian philosophy in these books, I am fascinated by Robert’s writing process.

330px-Robert_Greene_B&W“What I learned is that willpower, the intensity of desire, and practice can take us to levels of performance we never thought possible,” Robert writes. He suggests the following strategies.


Like Haruki Murakami, Robert compares writing books to running a marathon. There’s nothing glamorous about the process, which can involve periods of physical and mental depletion.

To prevent this, says Greene, develop a rigorous exercise routine. Avoid boredom by alternating between several activities, such as running and biking.

Gradually increase the intensity of your daily exercise. If you reach a point where you feel sustained tiredness, then back off a little. The goal is a plateau of activity that gives you more energy throughout the day.


Robert does at least 30 minutes of Zen meditation daily. This increases his ability to concentrate and let unexpected insights emerge.

Research to discover an original structure for your ideas

To research a new book, Robert reads 200 to 300 existing books on his topic. This takes about a year.

He takes notes in an old-school way, writing by hand on index cards:

When I read a book, I am looking for the essential elements in the work that can be used to create the strategies and stories that appear in my books. As I am reading a book I underline important passages and sections and put notes (called marginalia) on the side.

After I’m done reading I’ll often put it aside for up to a week and think deeply about the lessons and key stories that could be used for my book project. I then go back and put these important sections on notecards. A good book will generate 20 to 30 notecards, while a bad book will generate two or three notecards.

Essentially, Robert deconstructs existing books into smaller pieces and looks for new relationships between them. He destroys the original structures in order to create a new one. Eventually the table of contents for his next book is born.

Cultivate “negative capability”

Negative capability — a concept from the poet John Keats — means tolerating uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox. This prods us to think in new ways that resolve apparent contradictions.

To practice negative capability, develop a habit of observing people without judging them. Try to see the world from their point of view.

Also, as you begin a writing project, list your current assumptions about the topic. Then throw out or suspend as many as possible.

Think like an outsider

If you have training in a field that’s not directly related to your project, then use this as an advantage. What concepts from this field can you “import”? The answers will help you ask new questions and find novel connections between ideas.

Subvert your current patterns of thinking

Seek out facts and theories that contradict your current conclusions. Then ask why and how they can exist. When studying an event, ask yourself how it could have unfolded in a different way.

Use active imagination

For example, Henry Ford imagined workers standing still and working with auto parts that came to them. Result: the assembly line.

Use notebooks, drawings, and diagrams to visualize new ideas. Translate ideas into predictions and even physical models that you can test. Iterate and see what works — even if it takes you in a surprising direction.

In short, think of creativity as fusing two entities within you:

  • The child, who explores the world with few assumptions and thinks in fluid, flexible ways
  • The adult, who uses knowledge, experience, and observation to refine first thoughts into working theories

Note: For more about how Robert works, go to my sources for this post: