Nonfiction writers need a research process
If you are planning to write a nonfiction book, but you’ve never written one before, you may have a lot of questions about getting started. Confronting the dreaded blank page stops many people before they begin. Where do you begin?
Tons of books and articles have been written on this topic. Most articles advise you to simply start. Just start writing. That may work if you’re writing fiction. Depending on what you’re writing, fiction may not require research at all.
But most fiction requires a bit of research. For genres like sci-fi and historical fiction that research may be extensive.
With nonfiction, research is always required. Even if you’re writing a memoir and you have an exceptional memory for facts and details, you must double-check your facts to be sure your memory is accurate.
Even experts who write books in their own fields have to do research. Sometimes they have to perform their own experiments. If they do original research, they still must perform a literature review that shares the most current, reliable information already available in the field.
Do you have to be an expert to write nonfiction? Absolutely not! But you must present accurate, provable information when writing your manuscript. Otherwise, your book rightly will go nowhere.
General nonfiction writers need a different process
Information on performing research is sprinkled all over the web. Most of these are written for students who are assigned papers, employees who are asked to do research at work, or scholars who are writing for formal contributions to their field of study.
General nonfiction writers are not students
Research articles and books that focus on the needs of students will not address your situation.
Think back to the papers you were assigned in school. You were either 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.
The final product also had parameters. Maybe you were given a specified number of pages to write or a minimum number of notecards to complete. 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 paper 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
Other articles on research for writing focus on white papers and reports for work. Researching a job for an employer is also quite different from what an author wants 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 may 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 unique 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.
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? My steps are below.
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.
- 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, interviews, or other sources.
- 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 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. The rough draft will help you pinpoint any information you may still need to locate.
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
- Post-It notes
- Rubber bands
- Paper clips
- Think. In a notebook you’ve 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 anything they say that surprises or intrigues you. Note who said what.
That’s really enough to get started.
My next post will cover the first step of the process: the exploratory phase.
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