Research Tips For Writers

I’m one of those weird people that absolutely loves to learn. About anything. Case in point: I’m writing an article for the Kindle about the western lowland gorilla, a critically endangered species, and for another project I’m writing about data management. I enjoy them both equally. Writers (and this is another rant for another day) don’t necessarily have to specialize in a topic, because we specialize in researching and writing. That’s why people come to us for web content. If an engineer asks you to write about engineering, it’s not because he doesn’t know about it, it’s because he can’t express it in a way that will engage an audience and drive search engine traffic. You can. 

So when you go to write, don’t limit yourself. Of course, if you just have an unquenchable passion for writing about nutrition, go for it. But a lot of writers feel they have to specialize in a topic – you don’t. (Note to self: do a post on this.) 

Anyway. When you write, you usually have to do some research. Whether it’s a ton or a little, it still needs to be done. I’m going to briefly describe how I research. It’s not the holy grail of methodologies, it’s just the way I do things, and it might help someone out there wondering how in the world to go from research to written wonderful piece of work without drowning in note cards or going crazy. 

Read

Just read. Find as much information as you can find on your subject and read. Now when I say read, I’m not saying read and take notes, read and make note cards. No. Read. The biggest mistake I think writers make when they start researching is they want to start taking notes about everything they didn’t know before. That’s probably everything in the book or article you’re reading. You will go crazy, and never finish anything if you go about it this way. 

When you read, you familiarize yourself with the subject. You’ll get a good idea of what you should focus on, you’ll see information repeated across different sources, and you’ll retain a lot more than you think. The only thing I allow myself when I first start to research is Post-It Flags because I think they’re pretty awesome. If you come across something you really want to remember, just flag it and keep reading. 

If you’re reading on a computer, you can just highlight in whatever program you’re using. 

But whatever you do, don’t stop reading. I usually spend several hours reading material about something I’m working on. I know as writers it feels like we’re wasting time if we aren’t banging away on the keyboard or scribbling notes on a note card, but I promise you that having a general overview of the topic will help guide the rest of your research and result in higher quality writing. 

Partition

Once you’ve read a good amount of material, you’ll have in your mind some main sections or topics you want to cover. For instance, just in a few minutes of reading about the gorillas, I know that nutrition and behavior are apparently important because they’re talked about a lot in all the academic research. So, when I go to partition after I’ve read everything, I’ll know that I need, at least, nutrition and behavior. After you’re reading, take one note card and write down the main topics you want to cover. Got ’em? Great. 

Organize

Now that you know what your main topics are, you’ll be able to organize your research much more effectively. I’m an old school kinda gal, apparently, because I still get excited about binders, spiral notebooks, composition books, and pens. I know we live in a world that’s highly digital, but when all of you are blind from staring at your computer screens and I can still see my paper books, you’ll understand. (Just kidding.) 

But when I go to organize, I usually use an actual binder. I have a binder for every large work I do. I consider a large work to be anything over 10,000 words, but whatever large is to you, get a binder. Now that you have your main sections and your binder, make one binder section for each of your main topics. Now you’re ready to store all your research. 

I also highly suggest you get one of those nifty little note card storage things (I go to Staples) and get one for each of your large works, because you can purchase little tabs (much like those in binders) for these storage containers and keep everything together. Why get an organization tool for your note cards? Well…have you ever tried putting note cards in a binder? I know you can throw them on a ring, but then you have to punch the cards and…ugh. Just spend the 5 bucks and get an organizer, you’ll be glad you did. 

Code Your Sources

Unless you want to write out a long APA-formatted citation every single time you turn around, I would code your sources. By that I mean, if you have five academic articles in front of you, put a number or a code at the top of each one. That way you can take a note, put “A1” or whatever it is on the back of your note card (see next section) and keep going. Also, make one note card for each source with the proper APA (or your chosen format) citation format and the code you’ve chosen at the top. Keep these in the pocket of your binder. When you go to compile your reference page, you’ll be able to just alphabetize and write. 

Note Card Mania

Buy a lot of note cards. I mean a lot. At least more than you think you’ll need, because those things go by so fast! This is the fun note card section of your research. Now that you have a general idea of your topic, your main subjects outlined, and more or less a path through your research, start taking ONE note per note card. I cannot stress enough the importance of taking one single note per note card. I’ll explain this in the next section. If you find out that coffee is grown in 25 countries, put that piece of information on a card, put the source code on the back, and move on. Start compiling many facts onto one note card and your research compilation will be a nightmare. 

Long-Form Notes

Okay, recap time. You’ve read about your topic. You have a general sense of the main topics of your research. You made a binder (or set up files if you’re electronically minded) with sections for each main topic. You got a note card holder and a grip of note cards. You’ve taken one note on each card. You have your list of resources, all coded. Now it’s time to put all those notes together. 

This is the moment where you’re going to be so, so happy that you decided to take just one note per card. Find some floor or desk space. You’ll probably need it. 

Take one section at a time (see,this is why we keep sections in our note card organizers!) and lay out all your notes. Put them in an order that is most logical, as though each note were a sentence in a paper. Set them aside. Do the same thing for each section. Done? Good. Store them all again so that from front of the box to back of the box your notes are in order, as you see fit. 

Now all you have to do is go through and jot them all down on filler paper (notebook paper) in long form and store those in your binders under each section. 

Subtopic Outline

Okay. You’ve got your main topics stocked with as-chronological-as-possible notes in long form. Chances are, when you wrote those notes down you started to see some subtopics emerging. Good. 🙂 Because now you’re going to take those notes and make an outline for each section. Put the outline in the front of the section, making it the first page with your notes behind it. 

Main Outline

Do you see what you’ve done? You’ve created a large, organized, efficiently sourced, working outline in the form of a notebook. (I just heard a few light bulbs click on. And who shouted Eureka? It’s okay…totally appropriate.) Now, you go through, make each of your big subjects (the ones you have tabs for) a main point in your outline, and combine all the sub-topic outlines. Ta-dah! You have an outline of your project. 

Write

Now all you have to do is write. I keep a section in my binder for “Rough Draft” and “Final”, just because I like to keep everything together. But since you have your outline, you can go through and just write it all out in sentence form and you’ll have a rough draft. Once you have your rough draft, go through and add notes where your resources will go. Then write the reference page. Edit to your heart’s content. And you’re done. 🙂 

Things to Note

Here are some things to remember along the way. 

  • This is only efficient for large projects. Please don’t do this for every 500-word article, or you’ll go broke buying binders and never really make money, unless you’re charging $200 per article. 
  • Keep track of your sources along the way. When you make notes in any stage, from note card to outline to writing, that correspond with a reference note card, put the code and highlight it to indicate you have a source there. Then, when you go to write, you can pull the stack of sources organized by code and just put the sources in. Easy peasy. 
  • This can be done electronically if you want, as well. A big folder for the whole project, folders for each main tab, etc. If you’re going to do this electronically, I highly, highly suggest you use One Note. It’s a great program and literally is set up to be an electronic 3-ring binder. 
  • Feel free to color code along the way. I’m an obsessive color-coder and I think it’s amazing. It saves me time. But I’m artistic by nature, so remembering colors is easier for me than digging through binders or note cards trying to find something. If you want to have fifty black binders, go for it. 🙂 
  • This is meant to make your research fluid, organized, and efficient. If you find this to be stressful, find another system, because that’s not what it’s meant to be. 🙂 

Hopefully this has helped someone out there. I find this system to be incredibly useful, and I use it for all of my large works. I like to print out all the articles I find, use books and magazines, and really dig into a subject, but that’s just me. You can modify this as much as you want to make it work for you. 

I know this is a lot of verbiage, so let me know in the comments if you think a video or some photos of this system would be helpful for you. 🙂 I need to start doing videos, but I keep putting it off. Mainly because I feel really weird talking to my computer. 🙂 But if a video on research organization would be helpful, let me know or like this post and I’ll put one together. 

Until next time, happy writing! 

PS: What are some organization tricks you use for research? 

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