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The Writing Process, Part IV: Researching a Non-Fiction Book

This is my fourth posting on the writing process. I have discussed how to select a book topic (Part I), the steps in searching for a publisher (Part II), and how to develop a book proposal (Part III). In this post, I will discuss the steps in researching a non-fiction book.


Some writers enjoy researching a book. The pleasures of discovery, the long, quiet hours ensconced in a library alcove or parked in front of a computer screen, and the time for contemplation are appealing. These folks love knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I have a good friend, a professor, who has told me how much he enjoys uncovering facts and data. “It’s the writing that is painful,” he says.


I am the opposite. I enjoy writing. Combing through archives is not normally my cup of tea. Although I have occasionally experienced joy in researching a topic, I mostly find the process of dredging up material to be unmitigated drudgery. It is easy to burn up hours and hours searching for a nugget of information that winds up being useless.


The one exception came during the summer of 2021. I was working on a book about three Episcopal ministers from South Carolina. One minister was especially obscure. I stumbled upon an archive filled with photographs and original handwritten letters squirreled away inside the Spartanburg (South Carolina) County Library. The archivist there was unbelievably helpful. I spent five enjoyable hours combing through the material, rediscovering the life and times of a man who died in 1910.


That experience was, for me, the exception rather than the rule.


Having said that, research is an integral part of writing a non-fiction book. Therefore, developing a research plan and implementing it well are crucial parts of writing a book. Here, then, are my recommendations for researching a manuscript.


Literature Review: It should be obvious that the first place to start a research project is to read books and articles that have already been published. If the topic has been explored in great depth, finding the latest materials, and rifling through their list of references, should make the initial stages of the research process relatively easy to complete. Finding aids such as online university library databases, Google Books, and Google Scholar can place a large amount of research material at the author’s fingertips within a matter of minutes, if not seconds. I have found that the problem in researching a book often is not a dearth of material; the problem is in sifting through mountainous volumes of information to figure out how to organize the material.


Primary Research: Occasionally, a topic requires archival research. This means that a scholar must comb through materials, often unpublished, in search of the proverbial needle in a haystack. Archival materials include notes, diaries, printed speeches, pamphlets, correspondence, and contemporaneous newspaper accounts. Although many archival materials are now digitized, sometimes the researcher must show up in person at various university libraries or public archives and sift through paper copies. In some cases, a researcher can stumble upon material that he or she did not know existed. These sorts of discoveries are what make research pleasurable, to the extent that it is ever pleasurable.


Secondary Research: Published books and articles can provide a wealth of information for any researcher. The major caveat, of course, is that the author of a published source may have assessed the data and reached conclusions that are not sustained by primary sources. An author must take care to review primary sources whenever possible lest he or she replicate the errors and omissions found in secondary sources. Even when the author of a published work has been evenhanded, a researcher is wise to consult primary sources and draw his or her own conclusions.


Interviews: Depending on the nature of the research, interviewing participants can add a level of immediacy and authenticity that other sources cannot match. Sometimes it can be difficult to pin down subjects to interview, but they can be valuable sources of information if the interview can be scheduled. Interviewing strategies and techniques are a subject of numerous scholarly studies. They are as much an art as a science.


Photographs and Videos: Depending on the topic, photographs and videos may be available. A book on, say, the Watergate scandal can benefit from a researcher viewing old newsreels of President Nixon’s speeches and press conferences as well as the congressional testimony of key administration figures. A topic such as the life and times of Medieval priests obviously would not have such research material available apart from secondary sources such as documentary films.


Blogs, Websites, and Online Sources: At the risk of sounding old fashioned or elitist, I caution researchers against using unverified sources of information. The Internet can be a godsend but it can also supply horrific misinformation. It is preferable to rely on information that has been vetted by scholars and other experts on the subject matter than to accept data from suspect sources.


One final consideration: The question naturally arises about how much research is enough. At what point should a researcher finish researching an issue and put pen to paper? The answer varies from topic to topic. I generally start writing when I believe that I have sufficient information to construct a narrative. Later, if I find that I am missing information or have holes in my narrative, I search for information that allows me to plug the holes.


Constructing a narrative will be the subject of my next posting.


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