How to conduct research for your nonfiction book

Jul 21, 2020

If you are a first-time nonfiction writer, you may want to do research to make your book more credible or more persuasive to your specific readers.

Or you may not.

If you’re a writer who knows your topic inside and out, you may not need research. That is perfectly acceptable.

There are only a couple of reasons why you may want to add sources and citations to make your book more compelling or more impactful. In the first instance, additional data or expert opinions can boost an author’s credibility if they are writing a scientific or technical book. Or the second reason to do research: an author might know their industry inside and out, but have just a few knowledge gaps that they need to fill in to strengthen their key points.

Whatever you decide, don’t use research as an excuse for not completing your manuscript. If you need to augment your knowledge base with complementary research, use the following suggestions to build a stronger, more convincing book. Most importantly, you’ll want to perform your research without wasting time. 

  1. Before you start writing anything, you need to be clear on your audience and your message. Positioning your book is essential to your success. Once you understand who your readers are and how your message will help them, you can start putting together an outline. Your outline is the best guide to follow so you don’t waste time on research you don’t need. Your outline should inform you where your information gaps are and what other sources you may need to fill in.

    If you don’t know your subject well enough to figure out your positioning and create a solid outline, you may not be ready to write that book.

  2. Go through your outline and locate where you know you need more information. Next to each item or topic, jot down ways you might find that info.
    • Ask an expert
    • Find a book on the topic
    • Locate a website run by experts
    • Published white papers

  3. Read other books in your genre
    If you want to delve deeply into a topic, books can be your best resource.
    They’re the most reliable because they’ve been edited, fact-checked, and vetted. Competing books and books in your genre are a good place to start. Check out bibliographies or footnotes in other books as a jumping off point for your own research. Most times, there’s no need to buy every book, but simply browse their table of contents to see if they are useful. I can almost always find books I need at my local library. I’ve also done research at nearby universities or colleges. Research librarians at public libraries and at universities love sharing their knowledge and they are brilliant at offering suggestions.

  4. Talk to experts
    Make sure you have an informed list of questions for your expert. There’s nothing more annoying than getting peppered with questions that show little insight into the topic at hand. Get some background on your experts. Read their blogs, learn the basics before you query them.

  5. Collect surveys and data
    This will apply to a very few books, so don’t assume you need this type of info. But, if you want to back up a point you’re making, survey data might work. Just remember that data cannot be copyrighted, so you can use data numbers as long as you give credit to the author. But if you want to use graphs or infographics, they are copyright protected and you’d have to get permission. You could also conduct your own survey with any number of online tools like SurveyMonkey. These software tools are fine for informal purposes, but if you require a lot of data, or need more statistics, it’s probably better to hire professionals to create surveys to mine the data.

  6. Stay organized
    Organize your research as you go. Don’t rely on your memory. Create folders and subfolders on your computer where you can store everything related to your book. This is where you can use your outline. In each folder, collect pdfs, notes, or images relevant to that section. Give files clear, concise names and put them in the right place so you can find them again when you need them.

    Be sure to note the author’s name, title of the book or article where it appeared, date published and/or page number or hyperlink. If you collect photocopies or notes, label them the same way. Some writers use programs like Scrivener, Evernote, or Notion that allow you to collect references, notes, and even drafts in one place. They save you from having to create your own system. However you decide to organize your research, start at the beginning and follow through. It will save you time and stress later down the line.

  7. Don’t use “Research” as an excuse to avoid writing your book!
    Your outline is your best guide. Once it’s filled in, you can probably STOP RESEARCHING! Remember, the goal of your research is to support your claims or to fill in knowledge gaps. Simply make your case, don’t overwhelm your readers with facts.

  8. Write your first draft
    When you think you’ve done enough research, start writing your first draft. If you find you’re missing pieces of info, make a note of it. You can go back and fill in later. Once you start writing, stop the research. You want to get a flow of ideas going without interruptions. First drafts give way to many more versions where you can leave notes and fill in later. Don’t stop writing-- turn off your inner critic, and stay on track.

    Remember your mission: use research only to boost credibility or fill in your knowledge gaps. Don't use it as an excuse to procrastinate on writing your book!