Research process overview
In this post, we’ll get started with exploring research sources to help you begin your idea-gathering journey.
If you read my overview on the research process for general nonfiction writers, you’ve gotten a notebook to keep random thoughts and sources you come across in one convenient place. In it, you’ve already written down what you know about the topic (commonly called a brain dump) and what people you know personally and through social media had to say about it (a collective brainstorm).
Maybe that’s led you to write down a few things about the topic you’d like to know or a few things you’re wondering about. Perhaps you’re going off on interesting tangents related to, but not exactly on, the topic.
All this is excellent. Write it all down and let the ideas marinate in the background while you move on.
Step One: Explore
This first step is sometimes called “preliminary research.” While going through this step, keep your notebook handy. Exploring research sources will either create a base for your further explorations or it will convince you that this topic is not for you. Either way, it’s worth doing well.
For this you want to:
- Schedule time for the process. It can’t be done quickly.
- Dive into the search engines.
- Start to narrow your focus. Start thinking about exactly what sliver of this topic you want to write about.
- Find a good background source or two to give you an overview of the topic. Articles in reference sources like encyclopedias are a good place to start.
- Find one good book, if you can, that will give you a good overview of the topic written by an expert in the field.
- Skim the book for relevant information jotting down information as you go.
1. Schedule time
At this point you are really beginning to dedicate time to the project. To keep yourself on track, you may want to schedule times to complete different phases. Just pencil the dates in on a calendar. This is why online calendars are so great. It’s so simple to move things around and send yourself reminders.
Don’t worry if you need to revise your dates frequently. I tend to grossly underestimate how long projects will take. I just move the goalpost back and congratulate myself on what I have managed to get done.
2. Search engines
If you type your topic into Google, you will immediately notice a problem. Millions of hits will come up. Some of these will be of poor quality. Some will be worthless. And many will contain too much information to dive into. You may find a few helpful things, but most of it will be discussing specific issues that you’re not ready for or do not need.
Sometimes it helps to write down things you don’t need. For example, if you are writing a book about what patriotism has meant to a segment of the population (like housewives or factory workers) through the years, make note of the things that come up that are not helpful. One that comes to mind is the New England Patriots football team.
I tend to freeze at this point because of the tsunami of information that comes my way. And sometimes I feel deflated by the overload. Who am I to think I have anything to add to all this stuff?
The next item helps eliminate that feeling.
3. Your focus
Let me reassure you here. You are most likely not writing a treatise on the topic you choose. What you are trying to do is figure out enough about it to determine where you want to take it.
For instance, Barbara Kingsolver wrote her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by either growing her own food or purchasing it locally for her family for a year. As she documented what happened during that year, she added information from research on the US food supply and sustainability. So her focus on providing local food for her family was the focus that made the information on food supply and sustainability more relatable, interesting, and palatable to read about.
Like Kingsolver, finding your focus should be your goal in this step as well. Determine what, exactly, interests you most about this topic and why. Then see if you can ask a question about it that will interest you and others. Are there problems people deal with that your book can help them solve? The broad overview you are acquiring will give you a basic understanding of the topic. That way, you will be able to ask the right questions.
4. First sources
You want to begin with the short and the general.
As is often recommended, I suggest beginning with Wikipedia. As you may know, most teachers in high schools and colleges in the US will not accept Wikipedia as a valid source for papers and projects. This is because the articles may not be written by experts. So I wouldn’t take official notes on the article itself. Instead, note any reference sources that look promising. You don’t have to write them all down because you can always go back to it later to look for others that may be useful.
After you’ve done this, make a quick trip to your nearest library. Unless you are covering a topic that is changing very rapidly, (and even if you are) encyclopedias and reference sources in a library will give you needed background information.
As you read these sources, jot down anything that seems important or that surprises you. Put the name of the source at the top of the page. You may not need to use this information in your book, but you want to know where it came from in case you do.
You can trust these sources because they have been vetted by the publisher. Most publishers of reference books only allow experts in the field to write their articles. Not only that, the articles must then be peer-reviewed by other experts to make sure the information is accurate and helpful.
Another nice thing about these sources is that they often have further reading sections or bibliographies at the end of the articles themselves. You’ll want to write these down as well. Do a quick scan. Do any of them match what you had written down from the Wikipedia article(s) you consulted? Highlight, asterisk, or star those.
Once you begin tracking down information, you may find it becomes an obsession as it did for Jennifer Sarra.
Now with the background material fresh in your mind, go back to the internet and read some blog posts. Or just scan the titles. Google tries to bring you the most sought after information first. This will at least give you an idea of what people are searching for in relation to that topic. Does anything particularly interest you? Right now, just ignore anything that seems irrelevant or overwhelming.
5. Searching for books
It’s a common misconception that all of humanity’s accumulated knowledge can be found, for free, on the web. Not so. for in-depth information, you will need to read books.
To get a preliminary list of books, head back to Google. Then search for the topic and add “books.” I taught my students to type it in this way: [topic AND books]. Ignore the brackets, just type what’s between them. For instance, you want to write a book on a nearby landmark, Creasey’s Cabin. Your search box would look like this:
“Creasey’s Cabin” AND books
Use quotation marks around any phrase in which you want to keep words together with nothing in between and in a particular order (“Creasey’s Cabin”).
Jot down the titles of any that look interesting.
Do another search [topic AND background]. Usually an online encyclopedia will come up. Jot down the intriguing and copy and paste the bibliography or write it down. Again, you are looking for titles that keep coming up in different places.
Another thing I enjoy doing is getting on Reddit and finding the subreddit that relates to your topic. Ask other redditors what they would recommend someone read to get an overview of the topic. Ask them what books are “must reads” in that area. People who are enthusiasts know. There is also /r/suggest me a book that might be worth a try. While we’re discussing social media, you could also ask these people to recommend YouTube channels to help you learn about your topic.
Amazon and Goodreads aren’t great places to search for this sort of information. You want to find books that are highly regarded by those who truly understand the topic. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time. While Amazon and Goodreads are fine places to look for leisure reading, they aren’t so great for finding research sources.
6. Skimming the sources
Find the overview books that are most recommended. You do not need to read these all the way through with great concentration, unless you want to. Skimming is sufficient in most cases.
Let’s break down skimming:
- Remember you are looking for the overview and the big ideas related to the topic.
- Look over the table of contents first.
- Read the first and last paragraph of each chapter.
- If a paragraph looks like something that needs more investigation, read the first and last sentence of each paragraph.
But you might find you want or need to read the whole thing. Take notes if you need to. Don’t waste time backtracking. And once again, please write down the author, title, place of publication, publisher, and copyright date of the source (usually it’s on the back of the title page). If you write anything down exactly be sure to put it in quotation marks. If you either note something that’s not common knowledge or quote something, always add the page number.
You’ve completed Step One: Exploration.
Pat yourself on the back. Unless you are on a very tight timeframe, I’d take a week or so off before moving on to the next step. Let the ideas soak into your unconscious mind. All sorts of interesting things can happen to them there.
After a few days to a few weeks, take your notebook out and read over it. Note any new ideas that come up. In the next post, we’ll explore how to fine-tune your search by using keyword searches to find primary sources.
Do you have any helpful hints for this step of the process or stories about researching you’d like to share? Do you have questions about the process?
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