Writers - do your research and get ideas from question and answer websites online.
The internet is a great research tool for writers. There is a huge volume of information out there on any conceivable subject. Sometimes there is so much information you cannot find what you need. Other times you can't find a definitive answer.
Sometimes there is a great Wikipedia entry or definitive blog from a recognised expert. But where do you go if you don't know where to start or even what to search Google for?
Fortunately there are websites out there which are dedicated to answering people's questions.
What are question and answer websites?
Question and answer websites are sites where you can ask questions and other users will answer them. On some questions are open to anyone to answer. On others only credentialed experts can answer questions, particularly on important topics like tax and the law.
Questions are organised into categories and subcategories. It makes sense to put your question in the right category - there is a better chance of being seen by someone qualified to answer it.
There is no guarantee that your question will be answered and, except on sites using only credentialed experts, no guarantee of the quality of the answers. But even if you have to do your own research to back the answer up, it is still a useful headstart.
Books on research for writers
What can a writer use question and answer websites for?
1. Basic research
Ask questions about the topic of your article or story and see what answers you get from experts and others. Always do some fact checking of your own as well but using a question and answer website can be a great head start.
2. Quotes or anecdotes
Ask about people's experiences or for interesting stories. You should be up front with people if you plan to quote them or use their stories. I suggest you say as much in the question - it helps to avoid problems later on.
3. Idea generation.
Don't know what to write about or want to understand what people are interested in? Either ask them directly or just look the questions people are asking. The questions that people ask will give you plenty of ideas on subjects that internet users are clearly interested in.
Three free question and answer websites
This is probably the best known question and answer website. Anyone can ask or answers questions but users gain points for providing good answers, thus enhancing their reputation on the site.
Answers.com is actually a suite of question and answer sites. Reference.Answers.com is intended to be a definitive reference site for standard simple questions with answers from trusted editorial sources. Wiki.Answers.com is similar to Yahoo Answers but it is a wiki - so users can edit and improve each others answers.
Also similar to yahoo answers, in that anyone can answer questions. It does pay its contributors but only via giving them Google Adsense revenue so it doesn't cost anything but might encourage more responses. Remember to accept the best answer you get. It's a good way to incetivise people to answer your questions.
What if I need to ask a credentialed expert?
If you need more specialist advice and are willing to pay for it then I suggest using Justanswer.com. This site checks the credentials of its experts so you can be sure that you are getting value for your money. You don't need to pay until you are completely satisfied with the answer (although you do have to leave a good faith deposit).
Why not try it?
I've only highlighted a few of the many websites out there dedicated to answering your questions - some of them on niche topics. How active and up to date they are does vary hugely. But put them to good use and they can be a great way to get research done for writing articles, stories or anything else.
Do share any other suggestions in the comments below.