How I Research A New Subject

There’s no magic bullet. It’s mostly about sheer, dogged persistence

Clive Thompson

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Photo by Michaela Murphy on Unsplash

“How do you research a subject?”

I got asked this last week, while being interviewed by some college students. We were chatting about energy and technology, but they were also interested to know:

As a journalist, how do I set about researching a new area? If I’m starting fresh and reporting on a subject I’ve never reported on before, where do I begin? How do I know when I’m done?

They’re great questions. I’ve pondered this a lot during my 25 years writing long-form magazine journalism, and I can’t say I have a precise set of rules I follow; every research journey tends to be a bit idiosyncratic.

But there are some general guidelines. So I told them what I’ve learned.

Having done so, I figured hey — public thinking — let’s set it down here in case this is useful to anyone else!

So here are A Few Guidelines For Doing In-Depth Research Into A New Subject:

1) Start by getting a 50,000-foot-in-the air view

When I’m researching a new area, the first thing I try to do is get the lay of the land. What are the core concepts I need to understand in the field? Who are the major thinkers or contributors? What’s the common technical jargon people use?

I say “jargon” not derogatorily but descriptively: Every field — wheat farming, anime fangroups, quantum physics, 18th-century English history, the hospitality industry — has shorthand and lingo that lets insiders talk to each other concisely and efficiently. A key part of diving into a field is learning all the terminology they use, so when you’re reading up on it more deeply, or talking to experts in the field, you know what the heck they’re referring to.

So I start by doing what I think of as “50,000-foot-in-the-air” reading. I’ll hunt down a couple dozen good articles on the subject from newspapers, magazines or white papers that are aimed at laypeople, and read them all. This stuff isn’t deep, but it’s broad. It orients me to the major concepts, jargon, controversies, and personalities in a field. Wikipedia can often be surprisingly good…

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net