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6 Rules of Writing Research

In the interest of trying to keep things short this week (we’re really working on our wordiness around here) I’m going to keep the intro simple. Your writing process should always start with a little bit of research–some on your marketing and some on your actual subject matter. To help with the latter, we’ve put together six tips that will help you with your writing research.

1. Go beyond Google

A basic Google search can yield results in the millions, few of which may actually be related to your subject. There are other resources for Internet information that can give you better data from more reliable sources. If you’re in school, you can probably gain free access to the JSTOR database filled with millions of academic articles and reports on thousands of different subjects (without it you can still pay for individual articles which are usually $10 – $20 each). Other websites with valuable information include Ancestry.com (some databases are free, most are paid), Chamber of Commerce websites (free and almost every city has one), Google Scholar (free, but a lot of the articles are drawn from paid databases), Newspaper archives (usually free, depends on the paper) and the Library of Congress (free).

2. Don’t believe everything you hear (er, read).

photo by heathermariekosur

As with everything on the Internet, nothing is written in stone. In fact, the vast majority (VAST MAJORITY) of what’s on the Internet is strictly opinion. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some value, but if it’s an important piece of information you plan on building your entire story around, you should play a little Nancy Drew first. Verify the facts and the source, preferably from a non-Internet resource (they have these things called books…they live in a place called the library…)

3. Work on your Jon Stewart impersonation.

Interviewing people can be the best source of information for a story. Whether you need details about a place, person, occupation, disease, or process, find someone who is an expert in your field of interest and interview him/her. Prepare questions, take notes and add a thank you to your acknowledgments. Your subject will be flattered and you’ll have an important connection for future research as well.

4. Grab the keys and go.

If you need details about a specific place, go there! Provided, of course, that you have the means, set aside time for a little trip. You can’t accurately describe a place if you’ve never seen it. Visit your destination, take pictures, make note of the weather, the people, the smells, everything. Details make the difference when you’re trying to immerse your readers in another place. If you don’t have the means, Google Maps can be an adequate substitute, especially with the use of the Street View feature.

photo by pswansen

5. Organize everything. Everything.

Let your OCD tendencies run amok! This is your excuse to hit up Office Max for that block of post-it notes, the binder with all the pockets and a pack of multi-colored gel pens. Keep everything you write down, even if it’s irrelevant to the story you’re working on. You never know when one little piece of information could inspire you to start a whole new project.

6. Take your time.

Research is not something to rush through. Allow yourself plenty of time to conduct a full inquiry into your subject matter (relative at least to the amount you need to use in your book). There’s a reason why they say you should “write what you know”–so if you don’t know it, you better start learning.

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  • Thanks so much for this! I’m in the research stage for a book right now, and this post really helped remind and refocus me.

  • Loved this post. Yes, research is a fab jump start. Talking to experts, visiting new places, taking photos of what you want to write about all help get the details right, in fiction and nonfiction.

  • Great advice, especially as I begin to outline a new novel. Thus far, I’ve tried very hard to find several sources for information included in my works. I am reticent about scheduling an interview with someone, though. I can’t imagine cold-calling, so I suppose I should use those seven degrees of separation to find someone in the appropriate subject area.

    • What’s your subject matter? Crowd-sourcing contacts for interviews might help.

  • Great tips! A seventh one should be stay focused :) It’s so easy to get distracted with all the cool stuff out there that might be related to your topic but not really on topic. I find You Tube is also a great visual research if you can find your topic there.

    I somewhat disagree with the can’t write a place you’ve never been to. With the spike in airline prices, it’s very tricky to travel anymore. Thank goodness for Google Maps! Also I find looking online for people who are from that region you are writing about. Like read their Twitter and Facebook and Blogs, sometimes they describe where they’re from in natural speech so sometimes it’s the next best thing to going there yourself :)

    But yeah, if you can afford to travel, traveling always helps the muse I find.

    Thanks for this post!

    • Google Maps is the best thing ever. It’s being developed more and more, too, so it will only get more awesome. :)

  • Great post! I could not agree more about the importance of going beyond Google. Especially if you’re writing about history, get out of your house, get to the library, and visit different places.

    I have always found that I gain a much deeper understanding of anything through talking to real, live people.

  • Shellyarkonwrites

    Great tips.

  • Kirsten_weiss2001

    In fiction, what are the rules for citing your sources?

    • Great question, Kirsten! We’ll have to look into this and get back to you.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with making liberal use of JSTOR if you’re in school. I got so much great information from there and I wish I still had a subscription. I would add that Wikipedia is a great jumping-off point for writing research, if you pay particular attention to the References/Further Reading sections. I’ve gotten great sources from there. Also, don’t discount the library! The distinct advantages to going to a physical library are 1) the ability to look on the shelves to find books you might not have thought of and 2) (most importantly!) research librarians.

    • Thanks for adding such awesome resources, Vivian! Those are great tips for researching writers (that’s writers doing research, not doing research on writers)

  • TessaEdin

    The first rule about going beyond the google is the most inportant. Once you limit yourself to using only google you won’t write something good. The key is creativity. Just by simply using for example tips from custom writing company will give you the idea of improving your creative writing skills. After that applying them to writing should be a big deal.
    All in all, less google, more creativity and your paper will pass with flying colors.