Research is a necessary part of the writing process, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. Without proper, thorough research, inaccuracies can abound. Even if you are an expert on your topic, research can help ensure your information is up-to-date and can help you see new angles to incorporate into your work. When it comes to fiction, research can especially help you make your settings, characters, dialogue, and conflict more realistic. Furthermore, fostering good research skills can allow you to become an expert in any field.
However, it isn’t uncommon for authors to lose themselves in their research. For some, it’s the best part of planning and/or writing their book. Other authors may feel mired down by the amount of research they’ve taken on, paralyzing their efforts. Without discipline and knowledge on best practices, research can easily drive an author to distraction or desperation, making it nigh impossible to complete a manuscript. That’s why we compiled this list of tips to help keep you sane and on track through the research process. For more writing and indie publishing tips and resources, feel free to check out our newsletters here.
Create a game plan
Know where and how you want to conduct your research. Some people prefer to keep it online, others prefer to use books/ebooks or videos, and still others enjoy going to places they intend to research in person to get a better feel for them (primarily when it comes to research for a setting). Others use a mix of these methods. Just remember to document your research. If you want to go the book route, buying research material is an option, but libraries and library apps such as Libby can save you a lot of money.
Prepare a place to store research
Whether or not your mind is a sponge, it’s important to have a place where you can conveniently store your research to not only refer back to, but also to cite if needed. Word processors and applications like Microsoft Notes can be good options. Tools like Scrivener can also be helpful. Or, you may prefer a simple binder or corkboard. However you choose to do it, make sure it is accessible, organized, and easy to manage. Choose what works for you and use it consistently.
Start broad, then narrow your search down
Experts recommend conducting a broad search on your selected topic to get you going, then narrowing down your search to specific questions. One adage to keep in mind is that you need to know enough about a topic to form good questions. If you’re already familiar with the topic, great, but you may still wish to start broad just to see if there are other relevant avenues of thought you haven’t considered. Remember to be open-minded. You may find information that contradicts what you thought you knew.
Set a timer
Instead of spending hours on research, set a time limit. This can help you stay more focused and can also help you avoid burnout. Similarly, if you wish to use multiple methods of research, you can set a time limit for each and alternate methods to break up any monotony. For example, you can conduct online research for an hour, then visit a library to further your research, etc.
Know who the experts are
If you don’t know who the experts are in the field you’re writing about, then you need to find out. Research is useless if your sources are illegitimate or otherwise untrustworthy. Generally, if multiple sources are saying something similar, then that’s a good sign, but this is where researching via the web can be treacherous. Make sure the sites are reputable. Check their ratings if necessary and watch out for red flags like typos and inconsistencies. As far as books and articles go, check the sources cited. If there are no citations or if there are excessive typos, be wary.
Don’t be afraid to interview experts
In some cases, you may wish to speak directly with an expert in the field of interest. You’ll more than likely be able to find the person’s contact information online, whether via social media or email. Keep correspondence polite but succinct, and if they refuse, respect their wishes. Of course, treat them as you would wish to be treated. On a similar note, it’s good manners to ask permission before recording or publishing any quotes.
Learn how to utilize your search engine
The more succinct the phrases you use, the better at first. It helps to sit and brainstorm a list of keywords for your topic. If you want specific phrases to appear in the articles you search online, then usually putting quotation marks around the phrase will ensure you only receive results containing that phrase. You can also use filters to further refine your search, and sometimes utilizing multiple search engines can be helpful.
Use your library’s electronic index
You can easily spend hours at a library hunting through the aisles for the right books on the topic you’re researching. That time can be cut down by using your library’s index. If you can’t figure out how to access it, a librarian will usually be happy to help.
Know when enough is enough
There will come a point where you’ve collected all the research you need. Once you have a sufficient amount of information to complete your work, let it be enough. Try not to allow this part of the process to become a distraction. For instance, if you’re writing about the art of baking cakes, you may also come across mentions of how to make the perfect pie filling because it falls under the broader category of baking tips. This information might be interesting, but that doesn’t mean it’s relevant to your current work.