How to Do Research Like a Boss!
Originally published by me on read.com.
Working on a school report? Writing that novel or short story that’s been nagging the back of your brain? Stuck on that article you’re trying to write for read.cash? Research is one of those things that some people are in love with and some people hate.
If you hate doing research, it’s probably at least partly to do with how confusing and overwhelming it can same. The fun part is when your fingers are flying across the keyboard, visions of being published or at least hoping others care about your hot takes. That’s the fun part of writing, right? When you’re actually doing it and publishing it for the world to see, or handing it in to your teacher so you can finally say you’re free from its oppressive deadline!
Well, if you happen to get stuck on research, let me give you some tips. These are the things that help me tremendously whenever I’m working on an article, story, or even for some of my indie games.
Primary vs. Secondary Sources
Before we get researching, we need to define something very important, especially when doing research about historical figures, myths, etc.: primary and secondary sources.
A primary source is something related to the subject at hand, written by people who have first-hand experiences with the thing or are closely related to the thing.
For example, the story of the RMS Titanic is filled with primary sources. You have documents from the White Star Line, an incredibly accurate timetable of exactly when every boat was launched, when the smokestacks fell, when certain rooms flooded, etc.; you have survivors’ testimonies of what they saw, felt, and did; you even have the transcripts of Titanic’s communications with other ships up until the two men sending messages were forced to end their operations.
All of those things are primary sources, telling us what happened by the people directly related to the event or having lived through the event itself.
A secondary source is something that is written about the primary sources. Using our previous example, secondary sources would be books providing commentary on why the officers may have made the decisions they did, why the White Star Line created the RMS Titanic, and whether or not the ship was designed well to begin with.
Secondary sources are great because they breathe life into a subject, offer you a viewpoint you may not have previously considered, expand upon context, and also because the bibliographies at the ends of them will usually point you toward the primary sources they used.
You’ll need both when doing research. Some people prefer to start with the primary sources, acting as an investigator or detective, piecing together the information in a way that makes the most sense to you. Others prefer to start with secondary sources so they can get a storyline in their heads first, or because it makes it easier for them to find out what the primary sources are.
The Scattershot Method
The scattershot Method is probably how most people start doing their research. This was how I did it throughout most of my life, and I find it quite ineffective. However, and that’s a big “however”, I never really stopped doing it. Floating around on YouTube or hidden in the depths of Google, found only through strange keywords, some amazing sources can be found.
This is one of the first places I go for research. If I’m trying to learn about cryptocurrency, I rush to YouTube in search of someone who knows what he or she is talking about. If I’m diving into history or true crime, I look for a documentary.
Trust me, there are documentaries all over YouTube. I don’t know if they’re supposed to be there, but they are. They are an invaluable resource, especially since, much like books on a topic, there are usually multiple documentaries covering the same thing, each with their own perspective.
The nice thing about a documentary is that they’re seldom dry. Not only that, but they provide a visual experience and are usually about an hour long, easily digestible. Taking notes isn’t much of a chore when you’re watching a good documentary.
Some of them can be quite emotional, though. I cry sometimes while watching documentaries about Pompeii…
Deep-Dive Google Search
Sometimes the best thing you can do is just head to Google and start typing in keywords. There is a nice shortcut here, but I won’t get to it until the end of the article. Basically, if you go this route, you have to be willing to search through multiple pages and try different keywords, so it can take a little while. It’ll get you to some really good news articles, forums (communities of people interested in something are great), timelines, etc.
Forums and Reddit
The Alexander Palace Time Machine forum was the birthplace of all my love of and knowledge of the Romanovs and Russian history in general. It also clued me in to how great communities can be.
Look for forums dedicated to your topic and you’ll come in contact with all kinds of experts ranging from the serious scholar with published books, filmmakers, armchair researchers, hobbyists, etc.
I’ll give Reddit a special shout-out because there are so many places where you can just ask questions and there’s a subreddit for almost everything under the sun. Except for specific movies most of the time, especially old ones, and I want a dedicated subreddit for every movie in existence, darn it!
Of course, Amazon will factor into this somehow! Amazon, eBay — every site where you can search for books is a winner. Books are deep dives in and of themselves unless the reviewers say don’t bother because the whole book is maybe 30 pages of poorly cited information.
Basically, follow the reviews. A lot of the time, the previously mentioned forums will have some good books that you notice people bring up in threads over and over, so that can point you in the right way, too.
The Ultimate Method!
This one is going to be a little different, but it’ll give you a clear focus on how to go about doing research the right way.
Step One: Go to Wikipedia.
I’m serious here. Despite hyperbolic claims that citing Wikipedia will lower your grade, keep you from getting your book published, or make you feel knowledgeable about a subject when you aren’t, Wikipedia does something really good: points you in the right direction.
Find the article about what you’re researching and scroll all the way to the bottom. The reference section is a literal goldmine of references! Even better, unlike when you’re trudging your way through Amazon reviews, the information in the article itself tells you what kind of information you can expect to find in those sources, or at least you can infer it on your own.
Just read through the article, and whenever I see something that intrigues me, I just check the citation and instantly have a more credible source than Wikipedia itself.
And you can find both primary and secondary sources on Wikipedia, making it an incredible resource just for its reference section. Write down anything that takes your interest and move on to step two.
Also, you should definitely look at more than one Wikipedia article. For example, if you’re researching the Bolshevik Revolution, you might also want to look at the lives of several Tsars, Rasputin, the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, and the political divide not just in Russia but throughout Europe. It may seem like a lot, but you really want to understand your subject well, and those subjects rarely exist in a vacuum. Luckily, Wikipedia is here!
Step Two: Find the Sources
This means looking for them in a library or trying to find a copy on Google. Sometimes, you’ll easily be able to find the primary source your looking for online for free.
Think The Iliad by Homer. It’s long in the public domain, and if you’re doing a project about the Iliad, it’ll be one of your primary sources. The secondary sources, however, such as books about the life of Homer, the existence or nonexistence of an actual Troy, etc. are probably not going to be free and should be checked out in a library.
If you’re super into a subject, however, you can always head over to Amazon and get the best hardcover edition of everything you can find!
Step Three: Take a CRAPTON of Notes
I was usually a good note-taker as a student. This is because my mind would float away into the clouds if I was constantly tasking it with the organization of everything coming out of the teacher’s mouth.
This is what you have to do.
As an example, let’s say you’re researching a historical figure, such as Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Here are the kinds of things you’ll be taking notes on:
- His upbringing.
- His role in World War II.
- The politics of World War II (you can probably skip actual battles and just focus on what the politicians on all sides of the conflict were doing).
- A timeline of important events throughout his life and the events surrounding it.
- You can even write notes about the people giving you the primary and secondary sources, such as comments about who you think is biased and why.
Remember, when taking these notes the point isn’t to memorize information like you did in that math class you hated, it’s to have all of your relevant information in one spot so you can come back to it later.
As a shout-out, the program Scrivener allows you to do this all within a single project file, so it’s pretty handy when you’re doing something intensive.
Step Four: Create a Narrative
Finally, you take all of these notes and string them together into one cohesive narrative. You can do this literally with a corkboard, string, and tacks, or you can do this by rearranging your notes into a specific order as you go along, revising as necessary. If you’re a corkboard kind of person, there’s a sister program to Scrivener called Scrabble, which does just that.
It’s kind of like solving a puzzle, the idea that you’re going to be able to support one cohesive thesis when finished, or at least impress the people reading your article with how knowledgeable you are!
Step Five: Write Your Paper, Article, or Book
Now you’ve got everything organized and laid out just the way you want it, so it’s time to get writing that first draft. Put the information together, polish it up with a final draft, and wow everyone with your masterpiece.
And that, dear readers, is how you do research like a boss!
The meat of this article is already done, but I’d like to give one last shout-out, not to a specific software that will help you on your quest, but to a person: Susan Bailey of the blog and site Louisa May Alcott is My Passion.
I don’t know Susan personally, but I find history and historical figures fascinating, and Susan has helped me discover someone history has completely overlooked.
No, not Louisa. I’m talking about her younger sister, Elisabeth Sewall Alcott, the woman who inspired the character Beth March in Little Women.
Susan has taken it upon herself be the first person to write a book all about this woman, taken from the world tragically at the age of 22. And she’s had a pile of research to do. There are virtually no secondary sources giving clues or insight into Lizzie’s life. Probably the closest one I can think of is this article. It gives us a tantalizing look into the woman pressed into an archetype because, as this author believes, she didn’t take ownership of her own story while she was alive.
Moreover, the Wikipedia article for her is short:
She was originally named Elizabeth Peabody Alcott in honor of her father Bronson’s teaching assistant at the Temple School and close friend of her mother, Abba. By age three, however, after a falling out between Bronson and Elizabeth Peabody, her name was changed to Elizabeth Sewall Alcott, after her mother’s mother, Dorothy Sewall May.
In her semi-autobiographical novel, Little Women (1868), Louisa May Alcott represented her sister as Beth. She wrote:
Elizabeth — or Beth as everyone called her — was a rosy, smooth-haired, bright-eyed girl, with a shy manner, a timid voice, and a peaceful expression, which was seldom disturbed. Her father called her ‘Little Tranquillity’ and the name suited her perfectly for she seemed to live in a happy world of her own, only venturing out to meet the few whom she trusted.
In 1856, Lizzie contracted scarlet fever while helping a poor German family. Although she recovered, she was permanently weakened. Her father Bronson was on a tour of the Western United States and had reached as far as Cincinnati when he heard that Lizzie, known to be ill, had taken a turn for the worse. By February 1858, she refused to take medicine and told her father, “I can best be spared of the four.” As time went by, she grew weaker and thinner. On March 14, 1858, Lizzie Alcott died in her sleep. She was only 22 years old, about 3 months short of her 23rd birthday. On the same day, Louisa wrote in her journal:
My dear Beth died at three in the morning after two years of patient pain. Last week she put her work away, saying the needle was too heavy … Saturday she slept, and at midnight became unconscious, quietly breathing her life away till three; then, with one last look of her beautiful eyes, she was gone.
At the moment of her death, Louisa, her mother, and the doctor saw a ghost-like mist rising from Lizzie’s body. Her funeral was a small affair, with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Franklin Benjamin Sanborn serving as pallbearers. Lizzie was interred at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
I decided to leave in all the links, as you can find some information about things peripheral to Lizzie’s life, but do you know how many references are at the bottom of this article? Two. Both of these references are from a single secondary source: Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father.
That’s it. Susan has had to comb through hundreds of primary sources to get at the woman beneath the fictional archetype, and she’s been sharing this journey with her readers for years now, knowing how difficult it is for average people to access these primary sources.
Readers have had privy to the inner workings of a huge undertaking and have been allowed to speculate on Lizzie’s life through the comments on her blog. Some of them, such as one suggesting that Bronson’s overbearing philosophy on her life perhaps made her prone to depression and that she repressed her feelings, are a lot of fun and very interesting.
Susan Bailey is one of the best researchers I’ve ever seen. Her nonfiction book coming along nicely, and she has a sister site up now for anyone interested.
Remember, research might be daunting, but most of us won’t have half the task that Susan Bailey does!