Episode 35: Research and Other Bad Words, Part 2


Last week, I discussed ways to organize your research and to get the most out of your time. But gathering the research is really just the beginning. As with life, knowledge gained means that you’re acting on the knowledge learned (philosophical musings at no extra charge, by the way). That is, a list of facts is great, but tapping into the knowledge to produce a great finished product is the goal.

First, make sure that you have your facts organized. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I prefer websites that allow me to record information (e.g., Google Docs or Evernote), since this means I’m saving a tree or two and I can access what I gathered more quickly (couple that with Safari’s search feature, and I can find exactly what I need when I need it). Your organization style may vary here, but I would suggest ordering information based on topic. If you are documenting a new piece of software, for example, break up the information based on features or menus or whatever makes sense. If you are writing a script about a naval officer, sort the information by procedures or daily schedule or other appropriate divisions.

Once you’ve got your notes sorted out and have an outline, pick out relevant facts for each of your main points. This is obviously a bit easier to sort through when you’re working with non-fiction, as your points are more solid. But even with fiction, you can get an idea for where you’ll need to know facts about situations and characters. If one of your scenes is in the Smithsonian, then the notes about the exhibits can be pasted in there or put in the margins. The idea is to have the information exactly where you need it so that you don’t have to interrupt your thoughts.

Incorporate your notes as seamlessly as you can. Having edited a large number of writing projects in many genres and styles, I’ve run into lots of prose where facts “sound” like facts. Fiction is especially tricky because an encyclopedia-like entry on the job description of forensic anthropologist does not make for smooth or exciting reading. In such cases, it’s best to break up the description throughout the narrative, the events themselves, and the dialog, though there are no fast rules.

Research Tips

Here are some other tips that I’ve picked up over the years:

  • Never rely on the first article you find. It may very well be accurate, but it could also be completely off. After all, in most Google searches, Wikipedia will come up first. It’s a good site for most things, but it’s not a professional resource.
  • Research is worth it—defending your position is much easier when you have a good body of information to pull from.
  • Organization of information is the difference between a headache (i.e., a jumble of notes) and a solid scaffolding.
  • Your time researching should be commensurate with the level of technicality or depth.

Does anyone have any good research application or organization tips? I’d love to hear them.

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