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How To Use Solid Research To Back Creative Articles

by Rolling Stone Culture Council / Branding and Publishing
This is one of a series of posts on how Rolling Stone Culture Council members can get the most from their publishing benefits. If you're not yet a member, find out if you're eligible.

Writing a thought leadership article is often personal. You draw on your experience, your insights, your lessons learned.

But, depending on your subject, you may also benefit from including some outside research. Research is useful because it:

  • Helps you build a more credible and persuasive argument
  • Gives readers more background so they can make an informed decision or conclusion
  • Allows you to contribute to a wider conversation in your industry.

When you're writing content that offers advice, that first point is especially important. For example, sharing stats on Snapchat’s growth in certain demographics would help readers understand why you recommend it as a marketing channel.

But whenever you’re using other people's work in your own writing, you must be diligent about attribution. Giving credit for someone else’s research, quotes or ideas isn’t optional — it’s a basic requirement that we expect all members to meet.

Here are some tips for making research work FOR you:

Give credit where it’s due (with links).

Unless it’s in the public domain, do not borrow ideas, snippets, data, arguments, quotes, images, book quotes, et. al. without properly crediting them.

If you want to write in detail about lean startup principles, link to Eric Ries’ website or book, even if you don’t quote it directly.

If you quote a passage from another author, set the material off in quotes and make it clear to the reader how and where it’s coming from. For instance, if you didn’t personally interview Tim Cook but a Forbes contributor did, link to the Forbes article.

If you write something like, “Recently, sentiment towards Apple has changed — and that’s why there’s an opportunity for smaller hardware companies to capture some of their market share,” don’t assume readers know what you’re talking about (or believe you). Link to a trusted news source or two that corroborate your claim about consumer sentiment.

Finally, if you copy an article’s structure, ideas and takeaways but rewrite it slightly, you are missing the mark completely. Head back to the drawing board.

Here’s a great post about citations on Hubspot outlining additional scenarios for citing other people’s ideas, data and quotes, even on social media. If you’re a member and you’re not sure if or how to attribute something, leave a comment for our editors. We’re happy to help.

For details on how to link to your sources, check out our editorial guidelines.

Verify key stats or quotes by reading the original source.

Let’s say you’re writing an article about the continued importance of print books, and you come across this article in The New York Times. Some facts in the article seem to support your argument; you may even write something like, “This data from The New York Times…”

But the data isn’t from The New York Times, or the author of that piece — they’re just reporting on a study.

A better idea would be to visit the original study and draw your own conclusions. That way, you can directly verify its relevance to your argument. You may even find some better data points to use.

If you’d like to use both sources — perhaps some of the ideas or analysis raised in the secondary source are crucial to your own piece — you can try something like this: "Regarding the findings in Pew Research Center's Book Reading 2016 study, Lee Rainie told The New York Times that Americans “want books to be available wherever they are."

If you really can’t access the original (it’s out of print, or behind a paywall), you can use the same strategy above to attribute the secondary source — but make sure you’re confident it’s accurate.

Prioritize credible sources.

Don’t cite sources that aren’t reputable and trustworthy.

A survey your client performed with their top 50 customers? Borderline promotional, and the sample size is quite small — instead, find an expert whose credibility isn’t mixed up with your bottom line.

A blog post published five years ago by someone you've never heard of? Find something better.

Gallup poll data from within the last year published on Gallup’s website? Excellent!

The same principles apply to using your own firsthand research and reporting. If you’re not sure your source is credible, ask your editor.

Double-check your data.

Remember hearing your teachers say, “Correlation is not causation”? Everybody appreciates numbers. The problem is, not all of us have the statistical know-how to interpret them correctly. That’s why there are dozens of resources online and off devoted to helping journalists better understand statistics, like this tip sheet.

You probably won’t find yourself crunching large data sets, but it’s easy to find some stats and try to manipulate them to support your point. Avoid that temptation and double-check that your facts are accurate and correctly attributed.

The best research is ongoing.

Experienced writers don’t scramble over to Google to try and verify an assumption every time they write. They regularly read industry news and interact with influencers and top publications in their field; they may even save interesting links and information for future articles along the way. In fact, that’s often where they get their inspiration from in the first place.

To sum up: Give credit where credit is due, and/or where it supports your argument. Be rigorous and transparent. And always keep one eye on what’s going on in your field — it will make you a better writer (and help eliminate lingering writer’s block too).

Rolling Stone Culture Council is an invitation-only community for innovators and tastemakers on the cutting edge of what’s new in culture. Learn more.