If you’re like many first-time nonfiction writers, you’ve probably wondered, “How do I research for my book?”
I get this question a lot, and there are plenty of tips I can share. But before I dive into it, I’m going to throw you a curveball:
Don’t assume you have to do research for your book.
Because the purpose of nonfiction is to help the reader solve a problem or create change in their life (or both) by sharing what you know. If you can do this without a lot of research, then don’t do research.
We’ve had many Authors who knew their topic so inside and out that they didn’t need research. That is perfectly fine. They still wrote incredible books.
When it boils down to it, there are only 2 reasons to do research for your book:
- You know enough to write the book, but you want to add sources and citations to make the book more persuasive to a specific audience.
- You don’t know enough, and you need to learn more to make the book complete.
We’ve had many Authors who–despite knowing their stuff–wanted to include additional data, expert opinions, or testimonials to ensure that readers would find their arguments credible. This is important to consider if you’re writing for a scientific or technical audience that expects you to cite evidence.
Likewise, we see many Authors who know their industry but have a few knowledge gaps they’d like to fill in order to make their arguments more robust.
In fact, that’s the whole key to understanding how much research you should do. Ask yourself:
What evidence does a reader need to believe your argument is credible and trustworthy?
Research can be complicated, though. Many Authors don’t know where to start, and they get bogged down in the details. Which, of course, derails the book writing process and stalls them–or worse, it stops them from finishing.
The bad news? There’s no “right way” to make a book research plan.
The good news? The basic research tips apply for either person.
In this post, I’ll give you 9 effective research tips that will help you build a stronger, more convincing book.
More importantly, these tips will also show you how to get through the research process without wasting time.
9 Research Tips for Writing Your Book
Don’t jump into research blindly. Treat it like any other goal. Plan, set a schedule, and follow through.
Here are 9 tips that will help you research effectively.
Tip 1: Start with Your Positioning and Outline
This is called book positioning, and it’s an essential part of the book writing process.
Your job as an Author is to convince readers that your book will help them solve their problems.
Every piece of research you include in the book–whether it’s a survey, pie chart, or expert testimonial–should help you accomplish that.
Once your positioning is clear, you can put together your book outline.
Your outline is a comprehensive guide to everything in your book, and it is your best defense against procrastination, fear, and all the other problems writers face. It’s crucial if you don’t want to waste time on research you don’t need.
With an outline, you’ll already know what kind of data you need, where your information gaps are, and what kinds of sources might help you support your claims.
We’ve put together a free outline template to make the process even easier.
All this to say: without solid positioning and a comprehensive outline, you’ll wander. You’ll write, throw it away, write some more, get frustrated, and eventually, give up.
You’ll never finish a draft, much less publish your book.
If you don’t know your subject well enough to figure out your positioning and make a good outline, it means you don’t know enough to write that book—at least not right now.
Tip 2: Make a Research Plan
Your plan will vary widely depending on whether you are:
- An expert who knows your field well
- Someone who needs to learn more about your field before writing about it
The majority of you are writing a book because you’re experts. So most of the information you need will already be in your head.
If you’re an expert, your research plan is probably going to be short, to the point, and about refreshing your memory or filling small gaps.
If you’re a non-expert, your research plan is probably going to be much longer. It could entail interviewing experts, reading lots of books and articles, and surveying the whole field you are writing about.
The outline should highlight those places where your book will need more information.
Are there any places where you don’t have the expertise to back up your claims?
What key takeaways require more evidence?
Would the book be stronger if you had another person’s point of view?
These are the kinds of gaps that research can fill.
Go back through your outline and find the places where you know you need more information. Next to each one, brainstorm ways you might fulfill that need.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a book that includes a section on yoga’s health benefits. Even if you’re a certified yoga instructor, you may not know enough physiology to explain the health benefits clearly.
Where could you find that information?
- Ask a medical expert
- A book on yoga and medicine
- A website that’s well respected in your field
- A study published in a medical journal
You don’t have to get too specific here. The point is to highlight where you need extra information and give yourself leads about where you might find it.
The kinds of research you need will vary widely, depending on what kind of nonfiction book you’re writing.
For example, if you’re giving medical advice for other experts, you’ll likely want to substantiate it with peer-reviewed, professional sources.
If you’re explaining how to grow a company, you might refer to statistics from your own company or recount specific anecdotes about other successful companies.
If you’re writing a memoir, you won’t need any quantitative data. You might simply talk with people from your past to fill in some gaps or use sources like Wikipedia to gather basic facts.
Different subject matter calls for different sources. If you’re having trouble figuring out what sources your subject needs, ask yourself the same question as above:
Ask yourself what evidence does a reader need to believe your argument is credible and trustworthy?
Generally speaking, an expert can do their research before they start writing, during, or even after (depending on what they need).
If you’re a non-expert, you should do your research before you start writing because what you learn will form the basis of the book.
Tip 3: Ask the Internet
It may sound obvious, but the internet is a powerful research tool and a great place to start. But proceed with caution: the internet can also be one of the greatest sources of misinformation.
If you’re looking for basic info, like for fact-checking, it’s fantastic.
If you’re looking for academic information, like scientific studies, it can be useful. (You might hit some paywalls, but the information will be there.)
If you’re looking for opinions, they’ll be abundant.
Chances are, though, as you look for all these things, you’re going to come across a lot of misleading sources—or even some that straight-up lie.
Here are some tips for making sure your internet research is efficient and effective:
- Use a variety of search terms to find what you need. For example, if you’re looking for books on childhood development, you might start with basic terms like “childhood development,” “child psychology,” or “social-emotional learning.”
- As you refine your knowledge, refine your searches. A second round of research might be more specific, like “Piaget’s stages of development” or “Erikson’s psychosocial theories.”
- Don’t just stop with the first result on Google. Many people don’t look past the first few results in a Google search. That’s fine if you’re looking for a recipe or a Wikipedia article, but the best research sources don’t always have the best SEO. Look for results that seem thorough or reputable, not just popular.
- Speaking of Wikipedia, don’t automatically trust it. It can be a great place to start if you’re looking for basic facts or references, but remember, it’s crowd-sourced. That means it’s not always accurate. Get your bearings on Wikipedia, then look elsewhere to verify any information you’re going to cite.
- Make sure your data is coming from a reputable source. Google Scholar, Google Books, and major news outlets like NPR, BBC, etc. are safe bets. If you don’t recognize the writer, outlet, or website, you’re going to have to do some digging to find out if you can trust them.
- Verify the credentials of the Author before you trust the site. People often assume that anything with a .edu domain is reputable. It’s not. You might be reading some college freshman’s last-minute essay on economics. If it’s a professor, you’re probably safe.
Tip 4: Read Books
Using a few random resources from the internet is not equivalent to conducting comprehensive research.
If you want to dive deeper into a topic, books are often your best resources.
They’re reliable because they’re often fact-checked, peer-reviewed, or vetted. You know you can trust them.
Many Authors are directly influenced by other books in their field. If you’re familiar with any competing books, those are a great place to start.
Use the internet to find the best books in each field, and then dive into those.
Your book will have a different spin from the ones already out there, but think of it this way: you’re in the same conversation, which means you’ll probably have many of the same points of reference.
Check out the bibliographies or footnotes in those books. You might find sources that are useful for your own project.
You might want to buy the books central to your research. But if you aren’t sure if something’s going to be useful, hold off on hitting Amazon’s “one-click buy.”
Many Authors underestimate the power of their local libraries. Even if they don’t have the book you’re looking for, many libraries participate in extensive interlibrary loan programs. You can often have the books you need sent to your local branch.
Librarians are also indispensable research resources. Many universities have subject-specific research librarians who are willing to help you find sources, even if you aren’t a student.
Tip 5: Talk to Experts
Research doesn’t always require the internet or books. Sometimes you need an answer, story, or quotation from a real person.
But make sure you have a decent understanding of your field BEFORE you go to experts with your questions.
I’m an expert at writing nonfiction books, so I speak from personal experience. It’s annoying as hell when people come to you with questions without having done at least a little research on the topic beforehand—especially when you already have a 3,000 word blog post about it.
Experts love it when you’ve done some research and can speak their language. They hate it when you ask them to explain fundamentals.
But once you find a good expert, it condenses your learning curve by at least 10x.
To figure out who you need to talk to, think about the kind of nonfiction book you’re writing.
Is it a book about your own business, products, or methods? You may want to include client stories or testimonials.
In Driven, Doug Brackmann relied on his experience with clients to teach highly driven people how to master their gifts.
Even if you’re in a field where client confidentiality is key, you can still use client experiences as data. It’s possible to change client names and circumstances or make generalizations (e.g., “Many of our clients reported x”). If you’re ever in doubt about what you can include in your book, we recommend speaking with a lawyer.
Is it a book that requires expert knowledge outside your own area of expertise (for example, a doctor, IT specialist, lawyer, or business coach)? You might want to ask them to contribute brief passages or quotations for your book.
Colin Dombroski did exactly that for his book The Plantar Fasciitis Plan. He consulted with various colleagues, each of whom contributed expert advice for readers to follow.
It’s much easier to contact people who are already in your network. If you don’t personally know someone, ask around. Someone you already know may be able to connect you with the perfect expert.
If that doesn’t work out, you can always try the cold call method. Send a polite email that briefly but clearly explains what your book is about and why you’re contacting them.
If you do this, though, do your research first. Know the person’s name. Don’t use “To whom it may concern.” Know their specialty. Know exactly what type of information you’re seeking. Basically, know why they are the person you want to feature in your book.
Tip 6: Collect Survey Data
Some Authors like to collect surveys for their books. This is very optional, and it’s only applicable in certain books, so don’t assume you need this.
But if you want to include a section in your book that includes how people feel about something (for example, to back up a point you’re making), you might want to have survey data.
You might have access to data you can already cite. The internet is full of data: infographics, Pew data, Nielsen ratings, scholarly research, surveys conducted by private companies.
You can’t copyright data, but graphs and other graphics are protected. If you are planning to use someone else’s data, feel free to cite them. If you want to use their graphs, you’ll need to get permission first.
If you don’t have access to data, you can conduct your own surveys with an online platform like SurveyMonkey. Here’s how:
- Consider your research goals. What are you trying to learn?
- Formulate the survey questions. Most people prefer short, direct survey questions. They’re also more likely to answer multiple-choice questions.
- Invite participants. If you want a reliable survey, it’s best to get as many participants as possible. Surveying three family members won’t tell you much.
- Collect and analyze the data.
That will work for more informal purposes, but surveys are a science unto themselves. If you require a lot of data, want a large sample size, or need high statistical accuracy, it’s better to hire pros. Quantitative data is more effective and trustworthy when it’s properly conducted.
Don’t go overboard with statistics, though. Not all books need quantitative data. There are many other ways to convince readers to listen to your message.
Tip 7: Keep Everything Organized
Organize your research as you go. I can’t stress this enough.
If you research for months on end, you might end up with dozens of articles, quotations, or anecdotes. That’s a lot of material.
If you have to dig through every single piece when you want to use something, it’ll take you years to write.
Don’t rely on your memory, either. Three months down the line, you don’t want to ask, “Where did I find this piece of information?” or “Where did that quotation come from?”
I suggest creating a research folder on your computer where you collect everything.
Inside the main folder, create subfolders for each individual chapter (or even each individual subsection of your chapters). This is where your outline will come in handy.
In each folder, collect any pdfs, notes, or images relevant to that section.
Every time you download or save something, give the file a clear name.
Immediately put it into the correct folder. If you wait, you might not remember which part of your book you found it useful for.
Also, be sure to collect the relevant citation information:
- Author’s name
- Title of the book, article, etc.
- The outlet it appeared in (e.g., BBC or Wired) or, if it’s a book, the publisher
- The date it was published
- The page number or hyperlink
If you have photocopies or handwritten notes, treat them the same way. Label them, file them, and add the necessary citation information. This will save you a lot of time when you sit down to write.
Some Authors use programs like Scrivener or Evernote to keep track of their research. I personally use the software program Notion, which is similar to Evernote.
These programs allow you to collect references, notes, images, and even drafts, all in one convenient place.
They save you from having to create your own digital organizational system. They also make it easier to consult documents without opening each file individually.
Once you’ve got a system in place, don’t forget: back up your data. Put it on the cloud, an external hard drive, or both. There’s nothing worse than spending hours on research just to have it disappear when your computer crashes.
All of this takes time, and it may seem tedious. But trust me, it’s a lot more tedious when you’re racing toward your publication deadline, and you’re hunting down random data you quoted in your book.
Tip 8: Set a Deadline & Stop Early
Research is one of the most common ways Authors procrastinate.
When they’re afraid of writing or hit roadblocks, they often say, “Well, I just need to do a little more research…”
Fast-forward two years, and they’re still stuck in the same spiral of self-doubt and research.
Don’t fall into that trap. Learn when to stop.
When I’m writing, I set a research deadline and then stop EARLY. It’s a great way to beat procrastination, and it makes me feel like I’m ahead of the curve.
Here’s the thing: there’s always going to be more information out there. You could keep researching forever.
But then you’d never finish the book—which was the point of the research in the first place.
Plus, excessive research doesn’t make better books. No one wants to read six test cases when one would have worked.
You want to have enough data to convincingly make your case, but not so much that your readers get bogged down by all the facts.
So how will you know when you’ve done enough?
When you have enough data, anecdotes, and examples to address every point on your outline.
Your outline is your guide. Once it’s filled in, STOP.
Remember, the goal of data is to support your claims. You’re trying to make a case for readers, not bludgeon them with facts.
If you feel like you have to go out of your way to prove your points, you have 1 of 2 problems:
- You’re not confident enough in your points, or
- You’re not confident enough in your readers’ ability to understand your claims.
If you’re having the first problem, you may need to go back and adjust your arguments. All the research in the world won’t help support a weak claim.
If you’re having the second problem, ask yourself, If I knew nothing about this subject, what would it take to convince me? Follow through on your answer and trust that it’s enough.
Tip 9: Write the First Draft
When you think you have enough research, start writing your vomit draft.
If it turns out you’re missing small pieces of information, that’s okay. Just make a note of it. Those parts are easy to go back and fill in later.
Notice: I said “later.” Once you start writing, stop researching.
If you stop writing your first draft to look for more sources, you’ll break the flow of your ideas.
Research and writing are two completely different modes of thinking. Most people can’t switch fluidly between them.
Just get the first draft done.
Remember, the first draft is exactly that—the first draft. There will be many more versions in the future.
It’s okay to leave notes to yourself as you go along. Just be sure to leave yourself a way to find them easily later.
I recommend changing the font color or highlighting your comments to yourself in the draft. You can even use different colors: one for missing data and another for spots you need to fact-check.
You can also use the “insert comment” feature on Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or any other writing software you prefer.
Another useful tip is to simply type “TK.” There’s no word in the English language where those two letters appear together. That means, when you’re ready to go back through your draft, you can use the “Find” option (Control+F). It will take you back to all the spots you marked.
Whatever method you choose, don’t stop writing.
Also, don’t worry about how “good” or “bad” it is at this point. No one ever wrote an amazing first draft. Not even bestselling Authors.
Just keep at it until you have a complete first draft.
That won’t be hard because you won’t be missing any huge pieces. The whole point of the outline was to zero in on exactly what you want to write for the exact audience you want to reach. If you followed that outline when you researched, you’ll be able to stay on track during the writing process.