Research Methods

As I continue my slow slog through book writing, I’ve already discussed which research sources to use (here and here). Many of those resource choices are driven by the size of your document and how much time you’re given to produce it. Today I’ll be talking about research for books, where you’ve got plenty of time to decide which sources to use because you’re setting your own deadlines.

What Do I Mean by Research Methods?

Your volume and frequency of research can vary depending on your level of knowledge, what sort of book you’re writing, and the sorts of information you’re collecting.

Winging It

When I brought up this subject on Twitter, I got some responses from writers that horrified me a bit, though admittedly most of them were writing fiction, not nonfiction. One person suggested that I “just write” and only research facts if they were critical to the content. Another suggested doing practically no research and just letting my alpha reviewers catch any errors, even with nonfiction! I’m not going to lie: I shuddered a bit at such ideas.

These folks have obviously not written a lot of science fiction or space technology books.

The readers in those genres are well-educated, occasionally autodidactic, and very quick to jump on any error or (worse!) made-up “facts.” As my editor at Spaceflight Insider reminded me when I discussed the possibility of “winging it,” don’t.

Drinking from the Fire Hose

This has been my approach to space writing for a while now, both with fiction and nonfiction projects. I try to read as much as I can about a given topic before I feel informed enough to write about my given topic with confidence. Given my lack of scientific or engineering training, I might even read more than necessary just because I have a bit of an inferiority complex about writing such things for public consumption. I’ve been using this approach for the Mars book for a while now, and I’m getting tired. Eventually, my brain gets saturated, and I need to offload some of the data from my mind. So I’ve gone back to writing until I reach a point where I need to read a lot more about another aspect of my topic.

Reading a lot of books in a very short time (I think I read something like 15 books between January and March, plus dozens of internet articles) is what I’ve heard described as “drinking from a fire hose.” It’s exciting, but a bit overwhelming.

Researching as Needed

Having overstuffed my brain on several different topics–and bought another bookcase to handle the overflow in my library–I’m going to shift to a slightly different research mode.

Once you get familiar enough with a topic, through reading or experience, you can write at length in the direction you like. Then you only need to reach for a source outside your head when you need to confirm a particular fact or set of facts (do you happen to know, off the top of your head, the most common elements in lunar regolith? I don’t.).

It is entirely possible, given that I am neither a scientist nor an engineer by training, that I might get a fact or two in error here or there. Fortunately, I know enough engineers to serve as readers. I also know enough not to be egregiously wrong. I can get where I need to go with my book, which is about describing communities off Earth in such a way that liberal- and fine-arts majors can find jobs in them some day. As with my time at NASA, no one is paying me to build the space habitats. Be thankful.

As for those of you who believe you can write anything without doing any research, I wish you well. May your readers and critics be gently forgiving.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to Research Methods

  1. Edgar Zapata says:

    I will take your ending lines to heart.

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