Friday, July 13, 2012

Systematizing Your Research

Sometimes there's good reason to more research then you need. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, you need to do research—how much depends entirely on the complexity of the subject and the scope of your project. But no matter how much or how little research you need to do, developing a system of research will not only get what you need but keep you from getting frustrated in the process.

But whether you need stacks of material or not, apply a system for getting your material quickly, using it most effectively, and retrieving it later when you may need it. Libraries are convenient storehouses. Your research for any given project may well begin with a trip to one. If you’re just starting out in freelancing and aren’t yet equipped with a large collection of files and clippings, you’ll want to rely heavily on public sources.

To get the most from your research in the least amount of time, you’ll need to mix the research techniques of four kinds of professionals—the reference librarian, the university scholar, the investigative reporter, and the detective. Knowing how each of these experts does their research, what resources they rely on, and what tricks they apply will help you systematize your own research, getting what you need faster and more efficiently..

Reference librarians approach research through their knowledge of a wide variety of indexes, almanacs, dictionaries, bibliographic titles, and vertical files at their disposal. Getting acquainted with the reference material available to you will be one of your first priorities. Good reference librarians have a wealth of information at their fingertips. They’ll point you in the right direction—often long after your inquiry and until you’ve built a sizable file of information on your subject. They also seem to know everyone in the area and state who might be of help in your search. And since interlibrary loan agreements link  most libraries are linked to others in their states and nationally, there's little information that shouldn’t be quickly and readily available to you. If you let your librarian help you uncover these sources, you'll be able to do your research much more easily.

University scholars are another source you can turn to. Their knowledge is highly specialized, and they’ve spent their careers developing in-depth comprehension of particular information. Not only will they be cognizant of related disciplines and esoteric facts, they’ll be acquainted with a great many others in their field of expertise. You may want to ask them for letters of introduction to their colleagues at other universities, museums, or laboratories if these people can help you get the information you need. From these scholarly research techniques— concentration in great depth on one subject—you can borrow the discipline of thoroughness, without carrying it nearly as far as they do. Their techniques are particularly useful when you need to learn about a subject from the ground up. To find scholars, contact your nearest college or university or check out Who Knows—and What, among Authorities, Experts, and the Specially Informed, which covers 12,000 specialists in 35,000 areas of expertise.

Investigative reporters wade through criminal indictments, police complaints, warrants, arrest sheets, bail applications, court hearing reports, and interview transcripts to obtain the information for their articles. However, unlike scholars, they have to complete their research within a specific amount of time to meet their deadline. Good reporters know they must check their facts and quotes thoroughly but that eventually, the deadline wins and they must settle for what they’ve got, so they take lots of notes along the way.

Detectives and private investigators work with probabilities, official documents, confidential indexes, and government resources. Their specialties are the law and human behavior patterns. Some of the tricks they use to uncover information can be particularly helpful if you’re in search of anecdotes and colorful copy. They’re masters at combining what often appears to be infinite patience with timely impatience. Talk to a detective, and you'll discover how easy it is to gather quite a bit of data about people based on just their driver's license.

Remembering how each of these experts goes about their work is the first step to systematically approaching your material. With your project questions laid out in front of you, decide which expert's procedure is best. Often you'll use a combination of them.

Obviously, the kind of research that yields the most complete information takes ingenuity and constant practice. Remember, research often begins in the library, but it doesn't take place there exclusively. You may even end up doing research while sipping your morning coffee and watching the news.

Research, especially for books, may seem endless. Your head will become so crammed with information that you may even dream about it. When that happens, it usually means you're well on your way to understanding your subject enough to write about it.

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