How to Research and Write Skillfully on Something You Know Nothing About

By Kelly Tabbutt

One aspect of learning how to become a good writer is to quickly acquaint yourself with new topics and learn how to write skillfully about them.

Do you know how to research and write about something you don’t know much about? #writing #writingcommunity #writingtips #writingadvice #scicomm

This is true not just in freelance writing, but in writing in general. You may be in the medical writing field and asked to write about a newly discovered molecular target for cancer therapies.  Maybe you are a copywriter seeking to expand your content writing services and cater to a new industry.  You may even be writing an essay for school and simply feel daunted by the task.

woman sitting on books -- fancy comma blog
Writing about a new-to-you topic and feel the need to read everything about it? Learn a smarter way to write about complex topics in this post. Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash.

Read on to learn about the process of researching and writing about an unfamiliar topic.  In most cases, even in academic research settings, your audience might not know very much about the topic, either.  Unless you work in an exceptionally specialized field, it’s a good idea to write as if you are explaining the topic to a lay audience.

What does the writing process look like when you are writing about something you know very little about — in order to explain it to people who also know very little about it? 

To exemplify this process, I will use the example of researching and writing about the role of Vitamin C in immune system functioning. Therefore, this blog post will focus on biomedical science writing using Google, Google Scholar, and PubMed. We have also included eight tweetable tips you can use to share with your Twitter colleagues to improve their technical writing game. Let’s get to it!

As Humans, We Are Constantly Learning

Learning is an inevitable part of life; we are constantly discovering new things about the world, whether we like it or not.  Familiarizing yourself with a new topic can be both exciting and daunting. You may feel intimidated by the amount of information you feel like you need to know about a topic in order to be able to write effectively about it.

While the research process can seem overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be.  One of the most important aspects of content writing is the ability to flex your writing skills to effectively discuss a topic about which you know very little.  

You do not have to be an expert on every aspect of a topic to write a knowledgeable overview, but you do have to have a foundational understanding of the topic.  For this reason, writing about a topic you are unfamiliar with involves two steps: 1) research and then 2) writing. 

Also, the process of learning and writing about a new topic works best when you can find a way to be interested in the topic. Try to approach the topic with an eager curiosity to learn more.

Step 1: The Research Process

Take the research process one step at a time. Begin by building a foundation of knowledge.  Find out which sources are reliable, where to find research or explanations about the topic, and the basics of how that topic works.

Find the Best References Quickly and Easily

When learning about a new topic, you need to make sure you are only using reliable sources of information on the topic. Take advantage of Google search’s powerful functionality to find the most authoritative references.

Use the following Google search hack to search only university websites: add “site:.edu” to the Google search terms.  This will return only the webpages indexed by Google on university servers – that is, those pages with the .edu suffix.  You can use this trick with any domain (e.g., to search for only sites from http://www.mit.edu if you are writing about engineering) or suffix (e.g., to limit your search to “.gov” websites when researching a government initiative) to ask Google to retrieve only articles from those domains.

google search tips -- fancy comma blog

Use Reliable Sources

The reliability of sources, and where reliable sources can be found, may vary depending on your industry. For example, company websites and white papers can be a good source of information for some topics in various industries, and they are easily found on Google.

For biomedical science and many other academic disciplines, the ideal source of information is peer-reviewed journals. Peer-reviewed journals are those in which researchers must submit their research to review by a panel of credentialed experts in their field and subtopic.

Academic journals are generally peer-reviewed. For our example of immune functioning, the Journal of Immunology would be an excellent source. For our example in biomedical science, relevant academic journals are indexed by Google Scholar and PubMed. You can use Google Scholar and search for your topic, selecting the “Peer-Reviewed” option along the left side of the results screen. PubMed is another excellent search engine which will connect you with reputable journal articles. University program-sponsored webpages – such as a webpage for a medical school Immunology department – are another valuable source of reliable information.

Get Your Footing

To begin your research, focus on finding explanatory articles or webpages. You can do this quickly via Google.

Tip #1: When searching Google or another site for an introductory summary of the topic you are beginning to research, include search terms like “introduction,” “introductory,” or “overview” to focus your results on summary overviews.

The purpose of reading these introductory articles in this first phase of research is not to read them thoroughly for a deep understanding. The purpose at this point is to “get your feet wet” — that is, to note key concepts and terms and gain a basic familiarity with the topic.

If you are not able to find a basic explanatory article or webpage on Google, you can also look for articles discussing particular aspects of your topic on PubMed or Google Scholar.

When searching on these sites, you may consider narrowing your search down to only include review articles (often simply called “reviews”). Review articles are an article that surveys and summarizes previous studies. As a result, reviews are a great source of basic overview information in the biomedical science field.

Tip #2: Make sure you are getting the most accurate and up-to-date information in PubMed and Google Scholar. Use the panel on the left side of search results to select articles published within the last 5 years.

For the example of learning about the relationship between Vitamin C and immune system functioning, begin by looking for a peer-reviewed scientific article designed to introduce the topic of immune system functioning. You can also begin by looking for a university-sponsored informational webpage discussing how the immune system works.

Lay the Groundwork

The next step is to look up the key terms and concepts that you noted in your preliminary reading. For example, when researching the basics of immune system functioning, you would probably come across the key term “lymphocyte.” You can do a simple Google search for the terms and either rely upon a dictionary or encyclopedia as a source, or, as with your preliminary research, you may be able to find informational university-based webpages which explain these terms. 

Tip #3: Including the phrase “what is a” before your terms in Google Search will focus your results on definitions of the term, rather than giving you results with any mentions of the term.

Tip #4: Encyclopedic references are a great source for finding clear, full definitions and descriptions of a topic that focus solely on the term you are searching (rather than brief mentions of the term on various webpages). #writingtips

The idea is to understand these key terms and concepts well enough that you understand their meaning in the context of the topic. You will also want to understand these terms and concepts well enough to be able to explain them in lay terms.

Once you understand these key concepts and terms, return to your original introductory readings on the topic. This time, you will read these introductory articles or webpages deeply for comprehension. As with the key concepts and terms, you will want to understand the topic you are researching well enough to be able to explain them in lay terms to an audience unfamiliar with the topic.

Dig a Bit Deeper

Now that you have a good understanding of the basics of the topic, it is time to do a bit more research. In this final phase of research, you will want to look for articles that go beyond a basic description of how the topic works. 

In this step, you will want to find articles or webpages that discuss how the topic works in relation to other related topics. Going back to our example of Vitamin C and the immune system, you would now start looking for articles that discuss how Vitamin C supports the immune system.  That is, you will need to research the relationship between Vitamin C and immune system functioning. Again, you will need to understand this relationship well enough to explain it in lay terms.

One way to do this is to search for “Vitamin C immune function” in PubMed. You can use a comma to separate search terms or separate them with a single space. Notice that, in the illustration below, we are searching for only full-text articles published in the last five years. Ideally, we would have also selected the box that says “Review” on the left panel so that we would only be presented with reviews — comprehensive examinations of a given topic which integrate many different studies to provide an overview.

Tip #5: Reviews are comprehensive overviews of a given topic. They can be very useful in gaining a foundational understanding. You can opt to search only for reviews in both Google Scholar and Pubmed. #writingtips #scicomm #writing

pubmed search results -- fancy comma blog

The first option, “Vitamin C and Immune Function,” likely offers a useful description of the basics of how the relationship between Vitamin C and immune system functioning – and you should check out this article to understand that relationship. However, the second option, “Vitamin C and immune cell function in inflammation and cancer,” is the best choice, as it not only explains the relationship in general, but shows how this relationship works in specific circumstances of immune functioning.

The second article in the PubMed search pictured above will therefore likely offer you a more contextualized and specified understanding of the way that Vitamin C affects immune functioning. This will help you when you are explaining this relationship to your audience.

Once you are done with the research step, you are ready to move on to the second step — writing.

Step 2: The Writing Process

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Photo by Paul Melki on Unsplash

The first step in the writing process is to consider your audience.  Unless you are writing for a professional audience of experts, you will likely be dealing with a readership that is unfamiliar with the topic and its significance – often referred to as a general audience or a lay audience. The same is likely true if you are are writing blog content. Your audience will not be privy to the same research process you just undertook, so here’s how to write with a general audience in mind:

Keep Things Need-to-Know

The most important aspect of your writing here is to keep things concise and understandable.  To do so, focus on the key aspects of the topic you are writing about. Maintain a “need-to-know” mind-frame by discussing only concepts and terms required for an understanding of the topic and its greater context.

Tip #6: When writing a technical article for a general audience, keep things concise and understandable. Provide technical details on a “need-to-know” basis to avoid confusing readers. #writingtips #scicomm #bloggingtips

Highlight the most significant mechanisms or functions of the topic you are discussing. For example, in the case of immune functioning and Vitamin C, you could frame the discussion in the broader context of helping the body fight off viruses.  Remember that in order to describe the link between Vitamin C and immune functioning in general terms, you will need to break complex concepts and processes down into their most basic parts – explaining them step-by-step.

Explain it in Relational Terms

Consider using relational terms or explanations such as metaphors or analogies to explain complexities of an issue. Metaphors or analogies facilitate illustration of the basic relationships, concepts, or processes involved in your topic by likening these to much more commonly known and more easily understood process, concepts, or relationships. For example, you could use the analogy of an army to explain the idea of antibodies and the immune process of fighting viruses. 

Tip #7: To illustrate complexities of an issue, consider using metaphors or analogies to liken complex relationships, concepts, or processes to more easily-understood ones. #writingtips #scicomm

Keep Things as Simple as Possible (But Get Technical When Needed)

Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  We can apply Einstein’s insights to writing for a general audience.  Try to avoid mentioning technical terms unless they are foundational to understanding the subject.  Anywhere you introduce a technical term, make sure to explain it immediately to help the reader better understand the topic (and learn something new in the process).

Tip #8: If you need to use technical terms, explain them in a way that makes sense to a general audience.  Sometimes, you may be able to find a less technical term for a concept, process, or relationship.  #writing #scicomm

In the case of our Vitamin C and immune functioning article, you may wish to mention the body’s immune cells more generally, but avoid delving into a technical discussion of the different types of immune cells – just that they work together to fend off invaders.

Another exception to this rule is when a technical term is essential to understanding the concepts outlined in your writing.  In that case, make sure that you explain any technical terms in a general fashion.  

For example, if you wish to explain some of the exact roles of Vitamin C in the immune system, you may want to get more specific about the precise mechanisms.  In that case, you could discuss Vitamin C’s role in the development of immune cells such as B- and T-cells.  You would need to explain that B-cells help create antibodies to foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria.  You may also wish to mention that there are two types of T-cells: Helper T-cells, which help B-cells develop antibodies, and Killer T-cells, which destroy infected cells in the body.  Therefore, B- and T-cells keep us healthy in different ways.

It’s Not What You Already Know, It’s How Well You Can Learn and Explain

Writing about a topic you know nothing about involves two steps: research and writing. Being able to explain a topic to a general audience is the best way to check your own understanding. Beyond this, writing in lay terms is necessary to ensure that your blog stays approachable for the widest audience possible. Therefore, you don’t need to become a PhD on a topic to write about it, but you do need to understand it well enough to explain it in general terms.

The ability to research and write about topics you were previously unfamiliar with is a very valuable life and occupational skill. #writingtips #writingadvice #scicomm #technicalwriting

Trust the experts in research and content writing at Fancy Comma, LLC to help you reach a broad audience. We can explain complex terms and topics in comprehensible and effective ways so that that the value of your work can be known to a wide spectrum of readers.

7 thoughts on “How to Research and Write Skillfully on Something You Know Nothing About

    1. Thanks for reading and great question! I typically either keep a list of notes on pen and paper while researching, keeping track of different ideas or important concepts, or if I’m reading a PDF, I make comments and highlights directly in the document (I use Foxit Reader which allows me to do that, but Adobe also has this functionality, I believe).

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