What I Learned from HowStuffWorks.com: Research and Documentation

I do lots of work for lots of different outlets, but there are a few publications (online and print) that I work with regularly. One of those is HowStuffWorks.com, which is part of the Discovery network. I’ve been writing for their Autos channel since 2008 — nearly three years — and the most important thing I’ve learned from my regular, twice-monthly assignments is how to organize research and documentation.

How Stuff Works does not tolerate shoddy work. My editor requires that all my sources be listed at the end of every piece I turn in, whether it’s a one-page Question of the Day article or a multi-page, in-depth exploration of a topic. Every web site, book, interview, press release, etc., has to be included. Because I like going down the research rabbit hole, leaving myself a trail of breadcrumbs in the form of documentation notes is a habit I’m grateful to have developed.

When I first started working with How Stuff Works, my editor required that I turn in an outline for approval before beginning on the article itself. After a few months, he trusted me to structure the articles on my own, but I still use the outline even now. It helps me take that mass of information that I’ve accumulated in the rabbit hole and make it comprehensible.

I’ve even tried the research and outline approach in my fiction writing, but it’s less helpful there. My nonfiction work is kind of like building an engine according to carefully drawn-up plans, thanks to years of How Stuff Works assignments. My fiction work tends to be more like driving a muscle car with wide tires and no brakes.