Advice to the Research Challenged

Monday, September 14, 2015

As I update my first book for its second edition, I am reminded just how much research it took. So I thought this would be a good time to reprint a blog post that I wrote for the Indiana Writers’ Consortium blog, published on February 14, 2010.

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Advice to the Research-Challenged

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, bad facts make readers put your article or book down before they finish it. But over-researching wastes time you could spend writing and tempts you to include unnecessary facts that bore the reader. So how do you find the right balance?

Unlike many people, I love doing research. But I learned long ago that inefficient research wastes valuable writing time. Here are some tips on researching that use examples from my experience while writing In God We Trust, which was originally published by FaithWalk Publishing in 2006. The second edition will be coming from KP/PK Publishing at the beginning of October.

1. Have a general idea of where your book is going before you start the research. In God We Trust was my response to the ongoing argument over the meaning of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. As I listened to both conservatives and liberals, I became concerned that neither side was painting an accurate picture for the general public. The object of the book is to give laypersons the information they need to draw their own conclusions about what the First Amendment means and how well the Supreme Court has applied it.

2. Tailor your research to the book’s goal. I could have researched and discussed the country’s religious history from the time the Pilgrims reached Plymouth, but that would have overwhelmed my audience with more information than necessary. So I limited my historical research and discussion to the years during which the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written and adopted.

3. Select your sources, then use them wisely. Depending on the topic, libraries, books, magazines, interviews, location visits, and the Internet can all be helpful resources. Interviews and location visits wouldn’t have worked for me, but I made extensive use of the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago and of the Internet. I focused on original sources such as the Supreme Court’s written opinions and James Madison’s notes on the discussions in the House of Representatives. Internet research is tricky unless you use sites you know are reliable. Otherwise, use the Internet as a starting point but confirm your information from more dependable sources.

4. Don’t be afraid to go back and supplement your research. After I started writing, I realized I needed to address two federal laws that Congress adopted in an attempt to overrule the Supreme Court. So I found them and read them.

5. Or to leave some of your research on the cutting room floor. Although I believe in researching efficiently, it is better to err on the side of too much rather than too little. Some of the Supreme Court cases I read were decided on other grounds that avoided the First Amendment issues, so I didn’t use them.

Learn to research efficiently, and you might discover you enjoy it.


The picture shows the Harold Washington Library, where I spent so much of my time.

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