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Research for General Nonfiction Writers: Exploring Sources

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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 got a notebook in which to keep random thoughts and sources you come across. 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 you’ve written down a few things about the topic you’d like to learn more 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.

Exploring sources

This first step is sometimes called “preliminary research.” While going through this step, keep your notebook handy. Exploring sources readily available on the topic 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 step you want to: 

  1. Schedule time for the process. It can’t be done quickly.
  2. Dive into the search engines
  3. Start to narrow your focus. Start thinking about exactly what sliver of this topic you want to write about. 
  4. Find a good background source or two to give you a brief overview of the topic. Articles in reference sources like encyclopedias are a good place to start. 
  5. Find one good book, if you can, that will give you a good introduction to the topic, preferably written by an expert in the field. 
  6. Skim the book for relevant information jotting down information as you go. 

Let’s look at each of these more closely.

1. Schedule time

organize-notes

 To keep yourself on track, you may want to schedule times to complete different phases. Just pencil in the dates 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 much of it will discuss specific issues that you’re not ready for yet. 

Write down things you don’t need. That might sound counter-productive, but it will help to have these terms when you start actually collecting sources. For example, if you are writing a book about what the term “patriotism” has meant through the years to a segment of the population, like blue-collar workers, make note of the things that come up that are not helpful. One that comes to mind is the New England Patriots football team. Patriot has been used in many official names and in many ways that have nothing to do with your topic. 

Have you ever stopped work because the tsunami of information that comes your way is overwhelming?  Just seeing the volume of information on a topic can make you feel the topic is not worth your time. 

Focusing on a specific segment of the topic that you are uniquely qualified to explore should eliminate that feeling.

3. Your focus

Most likely, you’re not writing a comprehensive work on your topic. Instead, you want to look at it through a narrow lens. 

When Barbara Kingsolver wrote her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she didn’t try to write everything there is to know about the American food system.  Instead, she decided either to grow or locally purchase all food for her family for a year. As she documented what happened, 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.

find-focus

Like Kingsolver, finding a focus should be your goal 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? Has some experience in your life given you a particular insight? Think of different angles you can use to examine the topic. 

4. Background sources

You want to begin with the short and the general.

Begin with Wikipedia. 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. Don’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. Do make note of anything in the article that you may want to keep in mind to verify later. 

After you’ve done this, make a quick trip to your nearest library. Encyclopedias and reference sources in a library will give you verified background information. Do not hesitate to ask a librarian for help locating these sources if you need it. 

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 qualified experts to write their articles. And often the articles must then be peer-reviewed by other experts to make sure the information is accurate and helpful.

woman taking notes

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 take notes on 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.

 

Now with the background material fresh in your mind, go back to the internet and read some blog posts. Or just scan the titles.  You’re not looking for serious information,  you just want an idea of what people are searching for in relation to that topic. Does anything particularly interest you? If so, make a note of it.

5. Searching for books

All information available to man is not available for free on the web.  For in-depth information, you will need to read at least a few 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 called Creasey’s Cabin. You would type the following into the search box: 

“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.

social-media

Get on Reddit and find a 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. Consider asking these people to recommend YouTube channels to help you learn about your topic too.

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 introductory books that are most recommended. Close readings of these books are usually unnecessary. Skimming is sufficient in most cases. 

To skim:

  • 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.

Conversely, you might find you want or need to do a close reading. If you do, take notes as you read. Don’t waste time backtracking. 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 copy anything down word-for-word be sure to put it in quotation marks. If you either note something that’s not common knowledge or quote something, always record the page number.

You’ve completed  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.

feet-up

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 find keywords and develop questions to guide your research.

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?

Would you like help with editing? Send me a message below! 

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