“Pencils down.” The phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of students. What if you didn’t write enough? What if all the answers are wrong? Too bad; you’re stuck with your final essay. There’s no going back.
There’s something about the finality of closing the door on any knowledge work that’s tough. We don’t want to miss anything—whether it’s a witty quote or that perfect case study. The same with writing books—ending your research and starting your draft is daunting.
It’s possible to go on researching forever, really. Countless book ideas remain unwritten and unpublished because the writer is just looking for that perfect piece of research. But with that attitude, you’ll never publish your book!
We’re not asking you to abandon the research process. Virtually all non-fiction work and most fiction works require at least some research to complete a final draft, but it does require moderation.
This post is split into two parts. First, we’ll show you how to carry out a comprehensive research process in as little time as possible, then we’ll show you how to fine tune your research once you begin drafting your book.
The Research Process
Many writers fail to publish or even begin drafting their books because they’re stuck in the research process. Here we’ll show you three critical steps you can take to make your research as thorough as possible, and to avoid the trap that many writers fall into–researching their books forever.
1. Plan Your Research
Research is a necessary part of writing, and with some genres (e.g. historical fiction), it’s impossible to start without research. However, before you pick a single book or open a new tab in the name of research, there is something you have to do: Plan your research.
In academia, there’s an entire subject called research design, which teaches researchers how to choose their research methods, scope out their timeline and outline their research process. Professional researchers have to plan out their research before they carry out any research. Not only does this tick the check boxes for funding, but it also helps them stay on track and ensure their research project is valid.
Notice what they don’t do. A researcher doesn’t just blindly pick up a book and follow where their gut tells them (though this does make up part of the process) or start experimenting and follow what’s interesting. First, they plan, set a specific end date, and then execute.
Instead of approaching your book research in an ad-hoc manner, putting in research time when you feel it’s warranted, we advise that you design your research process. We’re not asking you to leave no room for spontaneity, often the best ideas come from the most unlikely of sources, but there should still be some structure to your research so, you don’t waste any of your precious time.
Remember many writers have still not begun their manuscript years after they started working on their book because they’re “still researching.” You want to avoid this trap.
This means you should set a clear end date for your research process, where you promise you’ll start drafting no matter how little, how much, or what kind of data you’ve gathered. It also means that before you start, you think about where you’ll gather your research from, and how much you’ll gather. As interesting as a side tangent can be, you don’t want to wander too far. Keep your research focused on the subject matter. If something seems interesting, note it down for the future. Maybe it could be your next book.
2. Outsource Your Research When Possible
Often, writing feels like a solitary endeavor, after all it is just you and yourself staring at a screen, tapping away at a keyboard for hours on end. But just because it feels like a lonely mission, doesn’t mean it has to be one. Especially in research.
No matter your subject, there’s an almost certain chance that someone else has done the heavy lifting for you. Someone who has immersed themselves in the field, found the dead ends, the wrong turns and the secret passageways. So why not tap into their knowledge?
When thinking of where to begin your research, tap into the human capital available before books or the internet. Are there any professors at your local college you can ask? Any editors in your domain that you can first reach out to? A great place to find names are the references used in journal articles or the authors of literature reviews and book reviews.
By asking them for help you can save yourself miles of wasted research, get an expert’s perspective on the topic (differentiating yourself from many other self-published books), and save yourself time. Often, as long as they don’t have a demanding schedule, they’ll be happy to respond to an email or two.
Don’t forget to remember them in your acknowledgements!
3. Ignore Your Inner Perfectionist
There’s a chance that if you’ve always wanted to write a book, you’ve got a perfectionist streak. And when it comes to book research, you’ll want to keep it under control.
You want to be a laser beam in your research. Focus on the best books for the keywords you’ve identified and don’t get sidetracked. Practical research is the key–find facts and data that will make your book more interesting, not analysis that you find interesting. It might not necessarily be the same thing.
This also comes in when you’re writing your book. Ignore the temptation to include all the research found in your book. Often 20% of your research efforts will form 80% of your book. If you found some piece of research you’re just dying to get out there, maybe package and release it as a bonus eBook for the thorough minded amongst your audience (and build your email list,) or have it in the appendix of your kindle edition.
7 Killer Tips on Researching Your Book
Now that you know the critical steps to carry out your book research, it’s time to look at ways to improve it. Some of these will save you time during the research process, others will help you to finish your manuscript as fast as possible, and yet give you that sense of completeness and thoroughness once it’s done.
1. “Backload” Research
There’s a secret to mastering the craft of research when writing your book that might strike you as controversial: Write first, fact-find second.
You may think that’s odd, but first hear us out. Consider this scenario: You’re working on your draft and you hit a spot where you feel stuck. You don’t know the answer to a question that arises in your manuscript, so you switch over to Google and start poking around for the answer. Soon you find yourself wandering around the internet as if you came into a room to find something, but you can’t for the life of you remember what it was.
And here is where you find yourself at the end of your writing time–watching cat videos– and you don’t even like cats.
The problem with researching while you’re writing is that you squash your momentum. Your draft will take longer to finish and it will be harder to write if you need to jump out of your writing mindset to switch over to research.
The solution: Don’t research at all once you’ve started writing until your rough draft is finished.
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2. “TK” is Your Friend
Here’s an editorial trick: When you hit an impasse in your draft and you’re tempted to look something up, whether that’s a quote, a proper name, or details about a location, mark that TBD spot with the letters “TK.” TK annotates a spot in your draft to return to when it’s time to research. Then keep writing!
Why the letters “TK”? There are no words in the English language that have the letters “TK” next to each other, making it easy for you to use the Control+F command to find your TBD spot later on.
By setting aside your research for later, you can keep moving on your draft and fill in the small details later. This prevents you from taking up all your time with research and avoiding writing.
3. Turn off the Internet
Turn off the Internet while you’re writing. Madness, you say? Well, why do you need the Internet? You’re going to do your research when you’re done writing, so the Internet is just distracting you. Write now. Google later.
Some pro writers say they like to take their laptop to a locale with no Wi-Fi so there’s zero temptation. Try an Internet desert for a day or two and see if it improves your writing pace.
4. Keep it Organized
When you find a key piece of research, file it so you can track it down later. Whether you do this with a virtual folder on your laptop, an actual folder in your desk, or with a tool like Evernote or Scrivener, the idea is the same. You need to compile all your resources together in one place so you can find it later.
Organization now will make adding research to your manuscript later easier and quicker. When your draft is done, you can put your hands on your resources right away.
5. Red Text Marks the Spot
If you’re humming along in your draft and hit the crossroads of a quote or stat, switch your text color to red to highlight that you need to come back. Red text marks the spot that needs later attention and you can keep drafting.
Of course, if you used the “TK” tip above you don’t need this step, because then you can just use Control+F to find where you placed “TK” in your draft. However, the red text will give you a visual STOP so you know this is an area that needs more research just by looking at it. Call it extra insurance so you don’t miss anything.
6. Hired Guns
There’s no shame in outsourcing the manual work of research. For the most cost-effective resource, consider a college intern. When looking for interns, make sure they have a background in your field. If your book is about demographic trends then look for qualitative researchers, perhaps someone with a major in the social sciences. If, however, you need to do some number crunching then look for some more quantitative oriented interns.
Or, if you need to hire a pro, look to Upwork to find a good researcher—be sure to check ratings and consider giving applicants a short test to make sure they’re up for the task.
7. Add it All In
Batching your work is a trick of the productive. By segmenting what you need to get done, you maintain focus without the need to switch from unrelated task to unrelated task. When your first draft is finished, return to the designated areas that required research, which you marked with “TK” or red text. Fill in these gaps and add in all your research at once.
Remind yourself that your goal right now is not the most perfectly researched book, it’s a finished one. You’re not going to be selling your research on Amazon, you’re going to be selling your story.
Writing a book is a mind game. Don’t let the lure of research (or cat videos!) distract you from finishing your draft. Plan and set an end date for your research process, and then put all your energy into research. When that’s done, begin writing your first draft no matter what, and hold off on any research until you’ve got a finished rough draft. Use our tips to manage your research efficiently and get to work on writing.
Don’t let research be the death of your book.