At the beginning of the semester, I tell my students that the best editors are good researchers. I mean this to be reassuring—they don’t need to memorize every entry in the AP Stylebook or learn every grammar rule by heart. But while we have stylebooks and dictionaries and usage guides, we also have the bottomless pit of internet data. Editors need to know where they can go when stumped—and that much potential reference material can be overwhelming.
New editors need to develop specific strategies for using reference materials effectively.
With something as convenient as a Google search bar just a click away, taking the time to get to know a stylebook or other reference guides doesn’t always seem worth it. The suggestions below will increase your overall efficiency by helping you search within sources and manage the data you gather.
- Plan ahead. Ask clients or coworkers what resources you’ll need for a new project. Gather them before you start so you won’t have to find them when you inevitably need them.
- Bookmark, bookmark, bookmark. Whether you’re online or in print, use a bookmark to flag essential information. I’ve put color-coded sticky notes in my print books: yellow for tables of contents, blue for entries I turn to frequently, red for stuff I often get wrong. Online, I create a bookmarks folder for long-term projects and keep my links in one place.
- Use all your search bars. Keywords and Google searches are commonplace, but you can also use search bars within online databases and even specific documents. Most online stylebooks and dictionaries have internal search bars, for example. And Control+F (or Command+F on Macs) will bring up a search bar on any website, Word doc, or PDF.
- Strategize where and how to research. When using information-rich reference materials, you may find a table of contents or an index to be faster than a search bar. This is especially true if you don’t have specific terminology for the concept you’re researching, or if the topic is messy and requires a broader view.
- Keep a process log. When you theorize the best ways to find information, you’ll discover some approaches work better than others in particular contexts. After each project, record what resources you used and how you used them. Think through what you did, especially if you struggled to find what you needed, and consider more efficient ways to access information in the future. Read your process log before starting new research.
- Create a personalized style sheet. We all have grammar and style hang-ups—concepts we look up again and again. Keep a running list of these hang-ups and their solutions, using a notebook or word processor, or something a bit more sophisticated like OneNote or Evernote. Over time, you’ll create a cheat sheet for yourself that significantly reduces your need for research.
Research is an art, and becoming a good researcher takes time. Ask yourself what you already know, what resources you need, and which research approach will yield the best results.
Research Strategies for Reference Materials was originally published in Tracking Changes (Spring 2020 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.
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