Writing a Book: Doing the research

Jul 11, 2017 | Better Writing

No matter what it’s about, your book needs to be distinctive and deliver value. You won’t be able to do that if you do research the way you did back in college.

Most of the research we did back then was not original. We only used secondary sources like books and articles. Not only that, research in college is assigned by giving you the question to answer. That’s different from the way it is when you research a book.

Two Ways Research for A Book Is Different from Research in College

When you do research for a book, you’re not looking for the “right answer.” You may not even be sure what the question is. Or, more likely, you may be sure what the question is but have it wrong.

Research for a book is about questions and curiosity. You need lot of divergent thinking, where you try to bring in as much information as possible before you start figuring out what it all means.

Think of it like you’re exploring a new place, a forest or a city where you’ve never been before. Follow your curiosity, and when you come to a dead end, go off in a different direction.

In college, we used printed sources for most of our research. To make your research distinctive, you need fresh facts and insights from experts. Printed sources will point you to experts. The experts, in turn, will give you information that’s not in the books and point you to more sources and to other experts.

To get all this right, you need to master a set of skills that you may not ever have needed before. None of the skills is particularly difficult to learn, but without them, you’re going to do college student research instead of great book author research.

Learn to Keep an Open Mind

When you’re looking for the answer to a specific question, like you were most of the time in college, you can start figuring out the answer fairly quickly. Research for a book is different. You need to keep an open mind for as long as possible. That may be something you haven’t had to do before, but it’s essential here. It’s also essential to keep from deciding you have the answer too early. Most questions in life and in book writing have more than one right answer, and the more you of them you can identify, the richer the value of your book will be.

Let Your Brain Do Its Thing

Evolutionary biologist and neuroscientist Bill Calvin once described the brain as “nature’s connection-making engine.” That’s the thing your brain does best. You find an interesting piece of information or a stimulating opinion and, presto, your brain connects it to other things that it knows about or has thought about. Those connections will suggest other directions to go.

Your brain is also good at coming up with ideas at odd moments, say when you’re driving, exercising, or taking a shower. Develop the skill of capturing those ideas, either in writing or on a simple digital device. They are the seeds from which great books grow.

Learn to Use Amazon as A Search Engine

Amazon has got all kinds of great books, and they’ve made it easy for you to find them. If you treat Amazon like a search engine, it will help you find books and experts. Use the collaborative filtering feature that tells you what other people who have bought one book have also bought to find multiple books on subjects of interest. Use the author pages to find books that an individual expert has written. Look inside the book to find references to other books and people.

Learn to Interview Well

The things you read and other experts will suggest more experts. Your brain will come up with some. Experts are like the rest of us, they have a lot of what is called “tacit knowledge.”

That simply means that they know a lot of stuff that they haven’t written down for publication. Your interviews can find those things and make your book high-value and distinctive. To do that, you need to learn how to interview.

I record all my interviews. Most of the time, I have the recordings transcribed. When I do that, I make sure that the person I interview receives a copy of both the audio file and the transcription as part of my thank you for his or her help.

Run Your Facts to The Ground

Many of the facts and stories that you find in books and articles and blog posts sound good, but you must run them to ground. Most writers who use facts and stories get them from other people but don’t bother to check for the original source. If you’re going to write a great book, you need to find the original source. Sometimes that leads to an interesting experience. Sometimes you find out that something “everybody knows” just isn’t so at all.

Know this, though. If you put one of those facts that’s not quite right in your book, there will be someone out there who knows what’s right. If you’re lucky, they will just silently close your book and think, “What an idiot.” If you’re not lucky, they will tell all their friends on Twitter and Facebook.

Bottom Line

Great research can be the core of the distinctive value you deliver to your reader. Great books are built on great research and insights. Great reputations and careers are built on great books.

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