How to research before writing a book

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Are you ready for research? Learn the principles of how to research for writing as we take a look at how to prepare your research plan before writing a book.

Most writers need to do research - to generate ideas, find authentic content for stories, check facts and search for publication opportunities. Research can be daunting to get started and time-consuming to carry out. However, understanding the basic processes and different sources can make the research experience more enjoyable and save a lot of time.

Efficient research is about systematically investigating materials in order to discover or verify information. Making a research plan is the first step of being systematic.

Why do you need a research plan?

Preparing a plan for your research before you start writing will help you to:

  • Clarify what your research needs are. When you know what you are looking for, it’s easier to find it!
  • Remember what you need to find out. The more complex your research needs, the more important it is to write everything down. 
  • Stay focussed. When you come across material that’s interesting but irrelevant, you can get sidetracked. Having a concrete plan in front of you can minimise the temptation.
  • Keep track. As you go about doing research, you can tick off all the objectives you’ve completed.

How to prepare a research plan

Start by jotting down what you need to find out. It’s often useful to write down specific questions as opposed to general themes. For example, ‘Bathing customs during the Victorian era’ might lead you to research what these customs were, whereas ‘How did the Victorian bathing customs come about?’ reminds you to search for their history and reasons behind them.

Once you are clear what you are after, organise your questions. Group similar topics and questions together. This will make your research more manageable. If you have a very large project, you could make a separate plan for each of the major elements. For instance, if you are writing a travel guide for Europe, you could research each country separately.

Now, look at the questions and work out which methods and sources would be most likely to provide satisfactory answers. Do you need to read books, journals, newspapers or magazines? Do you need to consult archival material, interview people or prepare questionnaires? Can you use the internet to access relevant materials? Perhaps you need to use a combination of sources? Don’t forget that sources go beyond text and words. Audio-visual material can help you to tap into different sounds and images. You can also observe people, places and objects by using all of your five senses: looking, listening, smelling, tasting and feeling.

Once you know which sources to use, make a note of these next to the questions. Include their locations, too. For example, if you know that the books you need are in different libraries, write down which books are where. Jot down any other information or reminders for yourself, too.

Your rough research plan is now ready. It’s usual to treat it as an evolving document: it functions best when you develop and modify it as you go along and learn more about your research area. Remember to keep it up to date.

Is your research project feasible?

Before you start researching, consider the following:

  • Does the information you require exist?
  • Can you access the required sources? For example, can you access the needed archival material or travel to another country?
  • Do you have the time to do the research?
  • Can you afford to do the research? Bear in mind that travelling, buying books and photocopying can be expensive.
  • Do you have the necessary skills to carry out the research? For example, if the material is written in another language, you need to be able to understand that language or have assistance from someone who does. 

If you answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, you should rethink your project and modify it so that it becomes feasible.

Tips for organising your research

  • Decide which questions need answering first. Working from the more general questions towards the more specific ones is often a useful strategy. For example, if you are writing about the Victorians, get a general feel for that historical period first before getting down to all the details.
  • It’s virtually impossible to consult all the different sources relating to your subject area. Therefore, start with the most relevant sources and keep digging deeper until you’ve found your answers.
  • Plan when and where you will consult all the needed sources. If you have to travel long distances to get to libraries or archives, make sure you have a clear list of tasks with you. This will help you to avoid any unnecessary further trips.

Research can be very enjoyable when you get into the swing of things. However, it’s worth remembering that ultimately it is only a means to an end: writing. So, don’t use research as a way to procrastinate. Start writing as soon as possible.  


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