Research: method not madness

Knowing how to do research is a real-life skill. It’s something kids should be taught early and continue to practice throughout their 12 to 16 years of education to keep their skills honed. The best news about this is that research is uber-simple in our internet-driven society.

Most kids these days don’t even know what an encyclopedia is or how to use one. “Unless you mean Wikipedia?” No, I mean a large, hard-bound volume with subject matter alphabetized that used to be sold door-to-door and required updating every fifth year (if not sooner).

You can be certain every person under the age of 16 is looking at me like I’m speaking a  foreign tongue. They can’t imagine a world in which information wasn’t a mouse-click away. And I’m glad they can access this database with such ease.

Of course, to me, this makes them even more responsible for knowledge. After all, with information at their fingertips, they have no reasonable justification for ignorance. And yet…

Every person on the planet will research something at some point. Perhaps it will be how to buy a home or make the perfect roasted turkey. Maybe it will be to check out how to treat colic or what sort of things to do on a vacation in Mexico.

I’m a fan of research when I have a question and I’m seeking an answer. To complete a paper on the topic of symbolism and literary theory? Not so much.

In either case, research methods in the 21st Century are nothing like they were as little as 20 years ago (in the 20th Century). With all the information available on the World Wide Web, ignorance should be a fading phenomenon. Or not.

questions1This is what I do when I’m performing personal research (meaning I have a specific question I want answered):

  1. I open my web browser (Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, etc.)
  2. I type my question into the Google search box
  3. My first stop is generally Wikipedia (more on this later)
  4. Using the sources at the bottom of the Wikipedia article, I narrow my search to a more defined and reliable set of sources.
  5. I will likely return to Google and type my much more specific search terms into the search box
  6. I start clicking on the articles based on which sound the most authoritative (given their source) and applicable
  7. I have never had to go past the third page of a Google search to find as much information as I need

I know every scholar shuns Wikipedia. It’s an open source database and anyone can modify the articles within it. Citing it as a source on any paper you write for school or work will destroy your credibility.

I avoided it when I first began my college degree coursework in 2010. Imagine my surprise when more than a year later, I had a professor (of psychology I believe) advise her students to begin their research with Wikipedia.

You can shut your mouth now. Yes, it’s hanging open just like mine was upon hearing this advice. From a woman with a doctorate no less! Insanity.

Her logic involved finding the specific information needed for your project in a condensed version. Once you found the general facts, she advised scrolling to the end of the Wikipedia article and using the sources listed for the information you want.  Real research and note-taking could begin with those resources.

Let me tell you this was so much quicker than searching through the library database of scholarly journals. Many times, a journal article would be cited in Wikipedia, and I could just search for the specific journal and have the source at my fingertips in minutes.


I’m still not a fan of doing research unless I have a specific question to answer. For this reason, I generally won’t research things for my novels or stories until I’m in the middle of the project and need the information or after the first draft is done.

Does this make tons of extra work? Not really. There are plenty of things that will need clarification and additional description during the rewrite. Why not put a big highlighted note in the manuscript and let the story flow rather than being side-tracked by the jumble of information you’ll find once you start researching?

Another reason I prefer this method is to avoid the dreaded “information dump.” Have you ever read a book and felt like the author was trying to make you an expert on a subject? They included so many facts and figures your head mimicked a carousel.

If you’re like me, skimming the text commences at this point. If I wanted a lecture, I would have opened something other than a fiction novel. Further, it smacks of “talking down” to the reader when you give them more information that what is necessary for the story.

But once I get a plethora of cool facts in my head, I want to share them. If this is you, I have some advice. Tell your spouse (they’re used to tuning you out when you talk) and save yourself the agony of having your editor red-line a paragraph or more of hard-won words.

No one likes to see that, do they?

Do you think the ability to effectively research is an important life skill? If you’re a writer, do you research before, during or after the first draft of you fiction novel? (Nonfiction is a different sport altogether.) What’s your research method?

What do you think? Add to the discussion here.