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The Research Process for General Nonfiction Writers: 6 Steps that Get Results

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Nonfiction writers need a research process

If you are considering writing a nonfiction book, especially if you’ve never written one before, you may have a lot of questions about getting started. Stopping many people cold is the dreaded blank page. How to begin?

old-bookstore

Articles on getting started are all over the web. Most articles and books advise—start. As in, just start writing. That may be easier you’re writing fiction. You don’t actually have to research anything to write fiction. It all depends on the genre and the subject matter.

“Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliche, it's the key to victory over fear and it's cousin, depression.”

Robert McKee
nonfiction writers

Most fiction requires a bit of research. For genres like sci-fi and historical fiction that research may be extensive.

But nonfiction is different. Unless you’re writing a memoir and you also have an exceptional memory for facts and details, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of your subject before you begin to write.

Even experts who write books in their own fields have to do research. Sometimes they have to perform their own experiments, but whether they do original research or not, they always have to examine the most current, reliable information already available in the field.

Do you have to be an expert to write nonfiction? Absolutely not! But you have to know what you are talking about or your book rightly will go nowhere.

General nonfiction writers need different process

Information on performing research is sprinkled all over the web. But non-expert nonfiction writers have different motivations for finding information, and they expect different outcomes from their efforts that most of the books and articles don’t address.

General nonfiction writers are not students

Most research articles and books focus on the needs of students. Think about the papers you were given in school. You either were given the choice to pick a topic from a list or you had to have your independent topic approved by a teacher. Maybe you were given a minimum number of sources to consult. Some teachers may have required at least one print source. And your online sources may have had to come from a school database. These requirements provided guardrails for your research choices.

And the final product had parameters. Maybe you were given a specified number of pages to fill or a minimum number of notecards to take. However you were given the assignment, you were likely taken to the library and given a quick lesson on how to find the materials you needed, which you may or may not have listened to. Librarians sometimes pull materials related to the topics to a cart to save students time. My point is, there was a certain amount of hand-holding involved. And you were graded, at least partly, on how well you followed directions.

General nonfiction writers are not writing for an employer

Researching a job for an employer is also quite different from what you need to do. Depending on the field you go into, most work assignments are action-oriented. You are likely examining options to approach a problem or a potential purchase. Perhaps you are asked to gather information and make recommendations based on what you discover. Much of the research can usually be performed online. Sometimes you need to record your findings formally, but often you are simply asked to discuss them verbally. The level of difficulty depends on the task

General nonfiction writers are not writing for a scholarly audience

Professors and scientific researchers have a completely different processes and criteria for success. They have their own manuals to guide them through their field’s requirements. The standards for scholarly or academic publishing are high. These fields require a level of understanding and completeness that general nonfiction does not necessarily require. Although it certainly never hurts. 

Obviously, for something like a nonfiction book on a topic for a general audience, you are going to need a different process from a student, an employee, or a scholar.

So what do you need? Here’s the outline.

research process

The Process

The steps here are a variation on the research process that applies to  almost any project, for almost any reason.

 In the next few posts, I am going to examine each of the steps in more detail. I will also have one post on how to evaluate sources. 

Step One: Exploration. In this phase you will be gathering information about your topic informally. This is a free-thinking phase.

Step Two: Isolation of keywords and central questions. In this step you will isolate exactly what terms and phrases you need to use to guide your search for your sources. You will use the notes from your background sources in the first step to focus your search.

Step Three: Collecting sources. Here you find the basic information you are going to need to write a book accurately and well. Depending on the topic, this could run to a collection of hundreds of different combinations of books, articles, or interviews.

Step Four: Taking Notes. This time-consuming stage requires that, from the beginning, you understand how to take notes and to have a good system set up so you don’t forget where a fact or idea. It’s also crucial that you don’t forget where those facts and ideas came from.

Step Five: Organizing your notes. After collecting the notes you need, you must have a way to rearrange them into categories that you will use to present them in your book.

Step Six: Beginning to write. By having your research done before writing, you will save yourself from wasted time and effort up front. And the writing process itself will go much smoother. 

Supplies

There are many ways to take notes. We’ll cover some of them in a future post. But for now, the only thing you really need is a notebook and a pen for recording your thoughts. Below is a list of other office supplies that may come in handy, whether or not you are planning to do most of your work old school (on paper) or digitally.

  • Note cards
  • Notebook
  • Post-It notes
  • Pens
  • Pencils
  • Highlighters
  • Rubber bands
  • Paper clips
  • Boxes
  • Files
office supplies

Get started

Think. In a notebook dedicated to your book, write down what you already know about your topic. Be as thorough as you can. Complete sentences and narrative flow are optional. 

 Talk. Then ask other people their thoughts and ideas on the topic. Write down anything they say that may be interesting.

Post. Get on social media and ask what people know or think about the topic. Don’t announce that you are thinking of writing a book about it. Just take notes on what they say that surprises or intrigues you. Note who said what.

child-elderly-woman-computer

That’s really enough to get started.

Next Post will cover the first step of the process:

The exploratory phase.

If you have suggestions for future posts on this topic or to inquire about my services, send me a message.

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