There’s an urban myth that doing research is a pain. Well, okay, it’s no myth—that is, it isn’t a myth if your main memories of research involve last-minute dashes to the university library to complete a ten-page paper that’s due in two hours.
As odd as this sounds, I actually enjoy research. When I was in grad school, part of my job as a graduate assistant was to track down articles for my professor. She was working on a book, and I was her research gopher. And, yes, I liked the challenge.
More recently, my editing and writing have given me a rare opportunity to pour on even more research in a vast number of fields, and yet that hasn’t caused my enjoyment to wane. Why? Simply because I’ve found ways to make my time researching more productive and less frustrating. At least, this is the method that works for me:
- Understand the topic: I like to call this the “pre-research” phase. If I know what I’ll be writing about (subject matter, characters, specialized settings), I spend some time just doing a brief overview of the subject. In other words, this is the Wikipedia phase. I may get some ideas, but I’m not worried about notes just yet. The point isn’t to really dig in; the point is to know how the topic “feels” in general.
- Ask questions: Once I know what I’m covering, I always ask questions. If you know a subject-matter expert (e.g., a police officer when you’re researching a character), ask them about the topic and get a grasp of the potential “touchy” areas (i.e., issues that might be controversial). If you don’t know an expert, ask your editor for help in contacting someone or look around the Internet or in your community. The bottom line is to find out more than just the facts; you need to know how those who are experts in that topic address the issues.
- Look for a pattern: Now that I have a basic understanding of the subject, I try to find patterns. I might ask something like this: When other writers are addressing my issue, what keywords do they use and how do they approach it? Different subjects and genres have a “feel” that you’ll be expected to know.
- Go to the books: Only at this point do I really start researching. As I’m prone to do, I use Google Docs to keep track of what I’ve looked into and what things stand out. If you can find everything online, that makes it easier, but sometimes there’s no replacing a good library.
- Decide on an angle: Sometimes I don’t have a choice about what my “angle” will be, but usually I have some leeway. My goal, when I do have the freedom, is never to decide how I’ll deal with a subject until after I dive in. The research should lead to the conclusions if possible, since this will make the writing more organic.
Next week we’ll look at taking the research and using it in your writing.
Do you have any research methods that you rely on? How do you go about gathering information?