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2. Doing the Research

[The second in a series.]

Once an idea comes, it must be developed before it can have any prospect of becoming, by and by, a book. This is the stage during which the writer discovers how much information about the subject is available to work with. Not being God, and able to create something from nothing, ex nihilo, the writer must have materials with which to create.

The first step is to identify potential sources of that information. They include personal experience, interviews, books and articles, web sites, etc. It requires a lot of reading and (because of fallible memory) notetaking. And that notetaking and source gathering requires a great degree of both ability to discern categories of information and organizational skills. It requires a high level of ability to see connections and interconnections (or disconnects) between and among all of the bits and bytes of information being gathered. Without these abilities and skills, all that is collected is a meaningless jumble of random thoughts, facts, and opinions.

As the writer does this research, he or she makes value judgments about the sources and the information by asking a series of questions.

  1. Is the source reliable and trustworthy? What biases does the source bring to the subject?

  2. Is the information accurate?

  3. Is the information relevant to my purpose? (It might be interesting but not relevant. This is where it’s easy for the researcher to get sidetracked!)

  4. How does this information relate to, corroborate, prove or disprove the other information I’m collecting?

  5. Does the information being collected fall naturally into logical categories that will prove or illustrate my thesis?

  6. Etc. New questions are always arising!

As the information I’m gathering from my research grows in volume, I must organize it. I get manila file folders and label them (in pencil at first because my categories might change as I learn more about the subject) according to the subtopics within my larger topic.

For example, on one project about missionary activities among the Cherokees prior to their forced removal to the west of the Mississippi, the information I was amassing fell logically along denominational lines. I devoted a file folder each to Congregational/Presbyterian missions, Baptist missions, Moravian missions, etc. Within each of those subareas, I discovered two main areas of ministry, education and evangelization, so each of those subjects got folders under each denominational folder.

My research often began with a quick search of Wikipedia. That is not a very good place for accurate, reliable information because anyone can add or delete content, not all of it accurate, but it often provides some good sources to check, and those often are reliable and helpful. Wikipedia is merely a starting point. I go much deeper from there.

When reading books or articles, I always check out the sources listed in the bibliographies. Those were a great help to me when I was researching the Confederate cabinet departments and secretaries. The best research advice I ever received was from Dr. Carl Abrams, the professor who taught the History of the South class I took: Go to the authors’ bibliographies and read everything they read in preparing their books.

Eventually, all the information and folders can become so voluminous that I need somewhere to put it all to keep from drowning in a sea of paper. I save long documents, dissertations, books, etc., to a flash drive, but shorter pieces I print. (What can I say? I’m an old-school dinosaur!) So I get a banker’s box from Staples to use as my storage vault.

If you’re not careful, however, you can be sucked into a never-ending vortex of research and never find your way out. At some point, I must organize the information into a working outline (the subject of my next post in this series) and begin writing. You’ll never gather all available information about your topic, so you must begin the work of writing your take on what you do have. And even as you write, you’ll find yourself continuing to do research because, inevitably, you’ll run across new sources to be explored. Don’t be frustrated by that. Rather, expect it, and use it to improve your content.

But never forget that the whole object of your research is to enable you to write.

Your assignment: Develop a game plan whereby you will conduct research on your idea. Identify sources of possible information. List subjects that you’ll need to begin researching. Gather file folders and other notetaking essentials in preparation for collecting and organizing the information you gather. And don’t forget to post your thoughts on the following form.

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