How to Start Research for a Book?
What we bring to our writing is a unique combination of knowledge and our own unique perspective on that combined knowledge.
Research is all about gathering knowledge. And what makes our writing special is what we do with it.
Where to Start?
Sometimes we need to gather new knowledge, so-called primary research which we might create through questionnaires or interviews.
Sometimes it's enough to pull together existing knowledge -- information that is already published, for example, and we can do this by reading around a topic.
Most research starts with an exploration of what is already published about a topic (sometimes called a literature review) and this is a good start to the research for your book.
You’re an expert in your field, so you probably have quite an extensive supply of knowledge to draw upon. However, nobody knows everything and a good writer will check his or her knowledge against what has recently been published.
What to Search For?
The first step is to brainstorm all the sub-topics related to your main topic.
Let’s take an example (somewhat topical!) of how leaving or remaining in the EU might affect small businesses in the UK. The first step is to identify the main sub-topics related to membership of the EU and small businesses.
These might include:
EU Regulations and differences with UK regulations
Trade -- exporting your products and services
and so on…
When you have your list, be honest about what you know and what you don’t know -- it's too easy to pretend we know something because we have an opinion, or we read something on a blog or Facebook. Not everything you read in the internet is true, so take a bit of time to verify it.
Identify the gaps in your knowledge. If you're not completely up to date on a topic, or what you know comes from a potentially unreliable source, then research it more.
If there are topics you're more familiar with, then just check for anything that is newly published.
Even when you think you know everything about a topic (maybe you’ve studied it recently or just written about it elsewhere), it's still worth a quick check that nothing new has been uncovered since you last read up on it.
How to Search?
Now you have your topics, and you know what's interesting to write about, you can start to identify key words and phrases so that you can search online or in print.
Key words relevant to EU regulations might be ‘EU legislation’, ‘EU directives’, ‘European Union Directives’ etc. Be aware that there may be different ways of spelling those words (not just US and UK, but in this case French or German or even Euro-speak!) and you need to search for all variations.
You can also the thesaurus in Word (or an online one) to look up synonyms.
Build up a list of search terms, to serve as a checklist, while you are searching. As you find information and read about the topic, you will come across new terms, which you can also add to your list of terms to search for.
The more you read, the more you will tune in to which are the most important and most relevant topics -- that which you'll want to write about.
Where to search?
You can start with Google of course, but Google Scholar is a better place to search for academic publications on your topic.
If you find a relevant article, you can also use the ‘cited by’ link in Google Scholar.
That will take you to articles which have cited the one you found and those are will be more recent (because they have to have been written after the article you found!) and might be interesting or relevant to your topic.
Notice also, that to the left in Google Scholar, you can specify to filter out older texts. Some topics are rapidly changing and knowledge documented years ago may become irrelevant to current issues. This isn't always true, but it's a nice feature if you want to keep your sources recent and therefore relevant to current issues.
Where Else to Search?
For the most recent publications in the media, use websites such as the BBC, and newspaper sites to read up on what is happening now in your field now.
Find journals and books which publish research or articles on your topic. For example, the Journal of Small Business Management may be a good one on this topic, but if you don't know, then go to a University library, or again, just Google with the word 'journal' and your topic.
When you have a list of journals, go to each one's website and use their internal search engine to find relevant articles. Even if you can't access the articles (it's very common to require a paid subscription), you may find that by dropping the article title into Google Scholar, you find a copy elsewhere online. Or make a list and then take a trip to a University library.
Use online library catalogues and book retailer websites to search for relevant books. However, remember the that not everything that looks relevant is up to date, so find work that is free online (or available for a small subscription) before spending a lot on books.
Is it Already Collated?
Identify organisational websites which might collate or curate information.
In our example, the UK government’s website (for legislation), the European Union’s website and various business federations and associations will curate some articles and may have written reports of their own that you can refer to or use to find original sources.
Finally, try to find the names of experts in your field and search again using their names to see if they have a website, or have contributed articles elsewhere. This is sometimes a good way to get around those expensive journals, because experts may have posted for think tanks or print media or blogs.
Go back to your list of subtopics and compare with the topics you've found so far to make sure you're being comprehensive.
Your Unique Edge
Don’t forget, however, to pay attention to what is not there.
That might seem a strange thing to say -- counter-intuitive -- how can you pay attention to something that isn't there?
But, identifying what is not already written about, may be exactly where you find your unique approach.
By asking yourself if there is a piece of the jigsaw puzzle missing, you may be uncovering a perspective or solution, which hasn’t been considered before.
Take our example above of how leaving or remaining in the EU would affect small businesses in the UK, most of what is currently written probably focuses on the UK, or even on the rest of the EU.
But what about considering those countries who prefer not to be a member, and never even apply? What are their reasons for this, and what's their perspective on the impact of being in -- or out -- on small business development? Sounds pretty interesting, right?
The hardest, by far, part of research, is staying focused, and knowing when to stop.
It’s way too easy to go off topic down some internet rabbit hole, to get distracted and start reading fascinating -- but irrelevant -- content.
Plus the internet is an inherently distracting place. With ads, emails, social media, and a host of feeds to your screen to take you off track, you might find it hard to stay focused.
Close everything down except the apps you need, or the internet browser you're looking at. Keep your book title in mind at all times. Have that list of key words and phrases printed out in hard copy by your computer.
And, as you're reading through the information you find, keep asking yourself,
What has this to do with my topic?
If it isn’t relevant, be ruthless and browse away. Forget saving for later, just move on.
When to Stop
Research for a book can go on and on with a seeming unending quantity of information. We are living in the information age after all!
But this vast body of knowledge brings the problem of information overload and you need to know when to stop.
In his book Doing a Literature Review, Chris Hart writes
You cannot read everything on all approaches relevant to your topic,
so give yourself a break and choose to stop.
Decide how long you intend to research for and halfway through your allocated time, stop and review whether you're nearly there. These are often signs that you've found the most important information:
You (because you're an expert!) begin to feel you’ve covered all the main points;
You’ve searched for all your search terms, you’ve used Google Scholar, journal, book, organisations’ and experts’ websites, but you’re not finding much new knowledge on the topic;
Similar issues come up again and again, so it looks like you're not uncovering new issues.
This most likely means you have approached the task from different directions and reached saturation; you have found the most important knowledge on the topic, so you can stop searching.
Phew, that's the first part of the research done!
the Author Unlimited team