Research tips for non fiction books
My earlier career as a newspaper journalist began in the pre-internet age. As a cub reporter, a trip to the newspaper’s inhouse library was required whenever I wanted to verify a fact or understand more about my subject. And what a treat that was. Newspaper libraries were stuffed full of truly knowledgeable people, who seemed to be able to lay their hands on just the piece of information I needed in moments. They would disappear off into the maze of filing cabinets, returning a short while later with a beige cardboard folder filled with newspaper clippings. Each clipping would have sections underlined in red pen, so the librarians could categorise and cross match them. I loved shuffling through those aging cuttings and was always careful to not put a cutting back in the wrong cardboard file. This would earn an instant and cutting rebuke from whichever librarian discovered this abomination that blotted their carefully curated scheme.
In many ways, I am very sad that well-staffed newspaper libraries are a thing of the past. Yet, I can also see the benefit of progress, by which I mean the internet of course. Indeed, I have often said out loud, how on earth would I have managed to do the job I do today without it? I have written dozens of books, switching effortlessly from subjects as diverse as classic movies, to human psychology, to the newest technology. The only way I have achieved this with ease is because I had all the answers at my fingertips.
That said, doing research for a book is not as easy as it sounds. You can’t simply rely on Googling to find all the answers required to complete your book. The lovely (yet strict) librarians are long gone, but there still needs to be some structure to your research endeavours if you (a) want to finish your book and (b) make a good job of it.
Virtually all non-fiction books require at least some research and some require a great deal. Many fiction books also require a bit of background checking to get the basic facts right. Get a little detail wrong and it will niggle a knowledgeable reader.
Starting at the beginning (literally), the obvious question to ask is: how much research should you do before you start writing? As a ghostwriter, I am in an enviable position. The authors I work with are theexperts in their field. I am learning at the feet of experts, so a great deal of the leg work is done for me. I interview an author to get a download of what they know and, all being well, I am off to the races. If, however, you are writing your own non-fiction book, you will have to do all of this from scratch.
Hopefully, you will have stuck to the old adage of ‘writing what you know’, rather than trying to begin a book about, say, nanotechnology when you only really have a vague idea about it. Even so, when you do know your subject, it is very tempting to devote some time to doing some extensive background reading before committing yourself to becoming the authority on it. It is here though, that I would inject a note of caution. It is very easy to get deeply involved in research for your book. So deeply involved that the months pass by until suddenly you realise you haven’t actually written a word. One interesting piece of research will have led to another, and then to another and to another and before you know it, you’ll be the world expert on a slightlydifferent subject (or worse completely different subject) and still be no closer to completing your book.
If you do feel compelled to do a bit of reading up-front, design your research process carefully. Think like a scientific researcher and work out where you intend to gather your research from, what you intend to gather and the extent of the subject matter. And set a clear end date for when you intend to finish this process.
My preferred way of writing is to write first, fact find second. Again, I have the benefit of pre-loading with my author interviews, but I do feel this method has merits with individual works. What I mean by this is that I will begin writing and then cross check the various facts I need via various Google sources as I go along. I am quite disciplined with my writing, so will flip over to Google, check what I need to check and then flip back to my Word document. I know that others are not so disciplined though and a trip to Google may then lead to checking your social media accounts, the latest score in a favoured sporting event, or developments in the news. If this describes you, I would save-up your queries and do some bulk research at the beginning or end of the day to check facts. Mark the section you wish to clarify, using the online highlighter or comments option and then sort it out later. Meanwhile, keep writing.
It is very important to be organised with your research. Again, I am usually lucky that the authors I work with send me documents that are useful for the book. I am very careful to file them, often with a note to indicate which part of the book they’ll be useful for. As you begin to write your book, you will come across all sorts of bits and pieces that might prove useful, from newspaper clippings, to photos, to old letters. File them carefully so you know what and where they are. Otherwise you will forget about them.
While it is great to collect all sorts of bits and pieces to use when you start writing, don’t fall into the trap of trying to cram absolutely every single fact you discover into your work. It’ll become confusing and cluttered. Cherry pick the best bits and always give credit where credit is due if you cite another person’s work.
Remember too that not all your research needs to be from the comfort of your own desk. I’m a big believer in going beyond an author’s description of key events and, if I can, will go to key locations that figure in the books I ghost. There really is no substitute for experiencing the sight, sound, smells and atmosphere of a place to really fully immerse yourself in events. Similarly, talk to people who are connected with your subject matter. There is always someone, somewhere, who has spent their lifetime immersed in a subject. Hearing their stories and opinion is a great way to brainstorm your own project and will almost certainly open some new avenues to explore.
Research is, for many, one of the most pleasurable aspects of writing a book. And rightly so. After all, if you are passionate enough about a subject to want to write about it, it stands to reason you’ll enjoy finding out more. Be logical and structured about it though, or you will find yourself with a vast quantity of disconnected facts and very little else.