My favorite part is of the writing process isn’t crafting the perfect sentence, making a brilliant point, or polishing words. No, it’s research. That’s a good thing, because as a nonfiction author, I spend a great deal of time actively researching, even when not at work on another book.
Sometimes that work doesn’t look like traditional research (the kind that happens in a library). It may include creating blog posts on a topic, freewriting to clarify thoughts, looking for data, interviewing experts, or talking with others. It’s any activity involved in gathering thoughts, data, and insights on a topic.
Research is the fun part.
The writing recipe outlined in The Writer’s Process lists research as the first, discrete step in a multi-phase writing process. That’s true for small, self-contained projects.
But research doesn’t fit in a single box when you’re embarking on major projects like nonfiction books.
Always Be Researching
If you hang around sales teams long enough, you’ll hear the mantra Always Be Closing (ABC). The saying was immortalized by Alex Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross (with questionable results.) It lives on as sales motivation.
Here’s a counterpart for the nonfiction author: Always Be Researching.
Book research never stops – it just shifts, changing phase or focus.
If you think of research as a single step that you begin and end, you may put uncomfortable limits on your work. Instead, think about five phases of research. If you plan to write more than one book, you’re always in at least one of them.
The phases below describe writing a nonfiction book, but could apply to any large content project.
Phase One: Exploratory Research
During this phase, you have no constraints or deadlines (yet), and you’re exploring and learning. That’s why it’s fun. Undertake exploratory research on a topic for the following reasons:
- To figure out what you already know and what you want to know about a topic
- To explore areas that interest you and see which topics or questions emerge
For any given project, the exploratory phase can last months, or even years. It’s rarely a full-time process – it can happen while you juggle other projects.
The secret to exploratory research is to do it with intention. Take it seriously.
Read carefully, take notes, gather your thoughts. Start collecting ideas and thoughts. This primes your brain to look around for related examples and interesting tangents.
As Louis Pasteur reportedly said, chance favors the prepared mind. Exploratory research prepares the mind to notice ideas and insights about your topic.
Phase Two: Project Research
At some point, you have to determine if there’s a viable book in that research, and if so, what it looks like. These are the questions you need to answer in this phase:
- Can you come up with an interesting angle?
- Is there an audience of people who may need or want this?
- Does it make sense to pursue?
- Will it be interesting and worthwhile to write about?
This phase might include exploring other books on the market, researching the core audience, talking with people, and determining how you want to spend your time. (Writing a book is a big investment of your time and energy, so make sure you want to undertake the project.)
The outcome of this phase might be a book proposal – even if you write it for yourself.
When you’re done, you’ll be ready to plan the project and move on to focused research.
Phase Three: Focused Research
Gather the ingredients for the book you plan to write. Make your list of sources, assemble and read the necessary books and articles, schedule the interviews, and keep careful notes.
Ideally, at the end of this phase you’ll be ready to write a decent outline of the book.
The challenge is knowing when to start outlining and drafting.You’ll never be able to do every conceivable bit of research. Perfect is truly the enemy of “good enough” in this situation.
You don’t have to be done with the research to start outlining and drafting the book.
Moving on is easier if you believe that instead of stopping the research, you’re beginning the fourth phase – supporting research.
Phase Four: Supporting Research
As you write the draft, you may dive back into the research looking for quotes or data points, or to answer fresh questions. The act of writing the first draft often reveals the need for additional sources to fill out a section or make the book more interesting and authoritative.
Supporting research can happen in parallel, offering small respites from the work of drafting.
Some authors deploy research assistants in this phase. That might work for you, too.
This phase usually ends with the publication of the book.
There’s a risk to investing heavily in supporting research: it’s easy to use the excuse of “just one more source” to put off revising and publishing.
Put boundaries on the supporting research. At some point, you have to publish.
Phase Five: Ongoing Research
Having published your book, you may be ready to put the subject behind you for a while. You’re not thinking about continuing the research. But it’s almost impossible to avoid.
Once the book is out, you’ll talk with people about it, and your learning doesn’t stop. New developments happen in the field, fresh examples appear in front of you.
You can either shut the door to these events or remain open to a background level of ongoing research.
Done right, ongoing research has many benefits:
- It generates fodder for articles, blog posts, or talks to support your author platform.
- Over time, you may assemble enough great content to justify a a second (or third or fourth) edition of your book, or possibly a companion.
Better yet, the background research may uncover related areas of interest, which lead you right back into the first phase, exploratory research, for your next book.
If you know someone struggling in the research phase of a book project, please share this post with them.
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