We love to joke about the random, sometimes suspicious mess that is our search history. But how exactly do we, as writers, conquer the messy chaos of researching for our project? This post will share a variety of tips for research & synthesis, including additional tools and resources that may come in handy.
Perhaps the most known method of research is reading books. Keeping up on your to-read list while working on a project can allow you to continuously draw inspiration and knowledge from other sources.
But if you’re having trouble finding specific information in books or a basic Google search, there are other options! Most libraries (ours included) boast a number of databases, including some tailored to particular disciplines.
You want information on a facet of world or American history? Here you go. Details on the lifestyles and history of people from the Caribbean? No problem. More information about turfgrass? We got you.
I’m unabashedly recommending library services because we are your one-stop information shop. If you can’t find what you need in our books or digital resources, let a librarian know and we can help you hunt it down or connect you to someone who can take you further on your research journey.
Your research might sometimes require you interview people who can speak personally or knowledgably to your subject matter. Before jumping into an interview, be sure you’ve prepared a thorough list of questions, carefully considered the order of questions (start with context & build up to the difficult stuff!), and are ready to scrap your order to maintain relevancy or follow a thread of follow-up questions.
Lastly, don’t shy away from reaching out to experts when you can’t find the information you need online or in books!
Alright, so you may already have the information you want, but now what do you do with it? Just as with the writing process, everyone has a different research process of preference. Try out some of the organization styles listed below to see what works best for you.
Collect quotes & summaries on index cards. I remember rolling my eyes when my high school teacher required us to record research information on index cards, with source information on the back. But this method is tried & true, allowing you to physically organize and reposition everything on your walls or tabletops as desired. I had a professor in college who preferred a more complicated color-coded sticky note system while drafting academic work, but be warned: one gust of wind or color-crazed toddler can wreak havoc on your plans.
Save & organize information online. Familiarize yourself with the options for information organization. I prefer using Evernote to save photos, text, and notes; it has a browser extension for saving screenshots or web links, and it allows writers to categorize and tag their research for future reference. Similar programs include Nimbus Note, Pocket, Flamory, & Trello.
Create an outline. This usually works best once you already have a rough idea of the direction your story & research will take. I usually just create outlines using Microsoft Word or Google Docs, but if you’d prefer a more visual option, you might try playing around with mind-mapping software like Prezi, MindMeister, coggle, or even an old-school white board.
The researching process can be frustrating but often leads to the satisfaction of a question answered. Integrating your research into your writing, however, takes a level of finesse.
Often your research might just help you provide more accurate background for your story. You might need to know how an individual would respond to a certain type of injury, or when toilet paper first became commonplace. This just helps you keep your writing in line with some level of reality.
Some research, though, will be integral for your storyline. Lately I’ve enjoyed writing absurd or surrealist flash fiction, which is either inspired by a bit of research I came across, or requires little to no research. But I’ve also experimented with creative nonfiction that melds memoir with parallel facts.
The key struggle of integrating research in poetry or prose is balancing the story with the fact. Be careful to avoid some common missteps:
Don’t include everything you know. Just because you’re interested or knowledgeable about a particular topic doesn’t mean you need to information-dump everything you know; figure out what might interest your target audience most and cut everything else. Sure, you may have spent hours searching for that one tidbit, but if it doesn’t fit or flow the way you wanted, throw that sucker away or save it for another time.
Don’t assume your readers have technical knowledge. One of the Hot Trends for publishers right now is to print work by talented creative writers in traditionally oppositional fields like medicine, engineering, and manufacturing. We love when a writer speaks to their experience removing a tumor from a cat while their sister undergoes radiation therapy, or when a writer approaches the complications of capitalism through anecdotes about their experiences in an auto union. Use that stuff! But if you’re writing for popular consumption, consider carefully how an outsider to your field might understand your work.
Don’t plop research down willy-nilly throughout your piece. Include research with a purpose. Be intentional about the context and formatting of your research. Are you going to use italics? Bullet formatting? Subsections? Lines to offset research? Are you making connections between your research and your story clear enough for your readers? Do you need to cite your source?
Don’t plagiarize. Remember learning all that source citation mumbo jumbo in school? Turns out that failing to give credit to the appropriate sources can be reason for lawsuits. Familiarize yourself with legal copyright information as needed. For example, if you’re writing a cookbook, legal copyright of recipes are much more tenuous than copyrights of stories, since recipes are understood by the law as factual, existing as truth outside the original publication.
For more information on research & writing, check out the following craft resources:
For more inspiration for well-researched writing, check out these titles: