If you’re writing a book, at some point, you’ll need to research, whether it’s a tiny factoid to supplement a scene or story, or a deep dive into psychological studies to build your argument. Conducting research is part of the job description.
The challenge comes in organizing the information so that we can find it during the writing process.
You’ll want to organize it so that it’s accessible and searchable.
It’s easiest to choose your tools and set up your system before you start researching and get buried under a pile of documents and books. If you’re already drowning in PDF’s and resources stored in boxes, notebooks, and fifteen different places on your computer, you’ll need to create a system to transfer, sort, and store all of this information.
This will take time, but it is worth it due to the time you’ll save in the long run by being able to find and access the information when you need it as you write.
Step #1 – Choose your Tools
You can choose either digital tools, analog tools (pen and paper), or a combination of both. No tool is better than another. The best one is the one that works for you and that you’ll actually use.
I use a combination of both analog and digital tools, but you can easily stick with one or the other.
- Something to store articles/PDF’s that you’ve printed.
- labeled file folders
- an indexing system – not high tech – I used a lined sheet of paper for this
There can be a learning curve with some of these but sometimes the time you take to learn is well spent with the time saved searching for things.
- a spreadsheet to summarize and link to different online articles/resources
- A folder system on your computer – you can use the folders, Google Drive, Evernote, Scrivener or whatever other storage tool you like as long as you can have folders to hold links, notes, & documents
- An online database tool like Airtable or Notion – these are highly useful with STEEP learning curves to use effectively – I’m super tech savvy but these two are tough. Users who use them LOVE them, but I personally found the amount of time I was spending learning these tools wasn’t worth it. If you do a ton of research or have a lot of material to index they would be worth the time to master.
- A scanner to scan any hard copies of research you might have such as photos, printed newspaper clippings that you can’t access online, printed notes that you don’t want to type up etc.
Don’t stress too much about getting your system perfect. Choose what feels good and easy. You can always change it or adjust it later, but start with something.
Step #2 – Set up your system
The first step is to set up your folders. These can be digital folders on your computer, paper file folders, or sections in a binder.
First, decide how you will sort your folders. You can organize them by topic/sub-topic, by date/chronology, OR by type of research such as article, interview, photo, map etc.
You might know immediately which one makes the most sense, but if not, take the following steps:
Step #1 – Topic brain dump – You don’t want one big file or folder called “Book Research” with everything shoved inside with no system because you won’t be able to find what you need when you need it. So make a big list of all of the TOPIC areas you might be researching.
These may include key dates, topic areas, the type of research you’re collecting like documents, interviews, studies, maps, photos etc.
List it all out on a piece of paper. This will probably grow as you dive into your project, but once you have a system set up, it’s much easier to add new folders or topics to an existing system.
Here’s an example of topics I researched and had folders on from my historical Overlander’s Series:
- larger topic areas included: wagon trains, Native American tribes, trappers, the Oregon Trail, quilts – 1850
- sub-topics included: emigrants, clothing, food, wagons, maps, routes, deaths, etc.
- key dates: 1847, 1848, 1849
- types of research included: articles, maps, books, photos
Step #2 – Decide on a folder structure
Once you have an idea of your topic areas, you need to choose your folder structure. If you’re using a digital system, you’re going to create a series of nested folders, so you need to decide how to organize your main folders. You can do this by topic, date, or type of information, or some other system that makes sense to you and your content.
If you’re using an analog system, you’re going to have a binder or file drawer for each set of folders.
You’re going to want main folders divided into sub-folders in a nested system, so it will look like this (specific examples shown below):
- Folder #1 Topic, Chapter, or Date
- sub-topic (if needed)
- Folder #2 Topic, Chapter, or date
Choose the overarching structure that makes the most sense for your project and for how your brain works. Below are some specific examples.
Folders Organized by Topic
For fiction, I tend to organize by topic.
Here is an example from The Overlander’s Daughter, my historical novel. The big topics were main folders and the sub-topics became subfolders. Here’s what it looked like:
- Wagon Trains
- packing for the trip – food etc.
- the wagons – size, mechanics etc.
- joining/traveling together, captains
- The Oregon trail
- maps & route information
- historical quilts from 1850’s – images and stories
- common quilt blocks and patterns from the midwest
- info from my Thesis – I did my Master’s Thesis on quilts in 19th-century short stories, so I had some information that I pulled in from that other research project. I did this research in the early 2000’s so it was all on paper and in binders. I had to sort through it and pull out the relevant information so I could index it and reference it. This information got its own subfolder.
Folders Organized by Chapters
For nonfiction, I organize by outline or chapters (which is essentially topic driven). I have a research folder for each chapter, and below that, one for each main topic area in that chapter.
In this structure, you’d have a folder for each chapter with sub-folders for either the topics in that chapter OR for the types of research.
- Chapter 1
- Research Studies/facts
- Chapter 2
- interviews etc.
- Chapter 1
- sub-topic 1
- sub-topic 2
- sub-topic 3
Folders Organized by Time/Chronology
For a memoir, a chronological narrative, using dates as your main organizational structure might make the most sense.
Here’s an example of what that might look like:
- 1982 – summer
- big event #1
- subject #1
- subject #2
- topic area #1
- topic area #2
- books (see tip for using kindles/ebooks below)
Step #3 – Organize Your Research
Now comes the real work!
Organizing Paper Resources
If most of your resources are printed on paper, you’re going to use an actual 3-ring binder for your “Main folder.” In your binder, you’ll sort your resources according to your structure and add dividers for each section.
The first page of your binder is a Table of Contents (ToC) or Index for what is in that specific binder. I handwrite this on a lined piece of paper – not fancy. When I start, I write on every 3rd or 4th line, knowing that I’ll be adding things into the binder. On the ToC, I list the title and a super brief summary or just some keywords. If I know that a specific article has information for a specific part of my book, I’ll note that.
I also recreate this into a spreadsheet on my computer, so when I’m writing, I can quickly see what’s in my binders without leaving my computer. It’s also searchable that way.
Your spreadsheet for your “Summer 1982” Binder would look like this:
|article title||type of document||summary/topic||link for online resource||tag/keyword|
|“something happened”||newspaper article||john doe was elected mayor||www.hometownnews.com||john doe, election, mayor|
|John & Mary Doe||photo||pic taken in front of courthouse w/kids||n/a||courthouse|
Your next step is to actually build your binders. You’ll need to sort through all of your research and put each article, PDF, photo, map etc. into the category where it fits best. Create your ToC or Index as you do this.
I know this might sound daunting but if your project is research heavy, this will save a ton of time and allow you to actually utilize all of your research as you write your book.
Organizing Digital Resources
You’ll approach this the same say as your paper resources but you’ll be dragging files and PDF’s into your new nested folder system rather than hole-punching them and sticking them in a binder.
The first step is to create the folder system on your computer. You can do this in the existing folder system, or you might set it up in Evernote, Scrivener, or Google docs.
The next step is to create a searchable spreadsheet for your Table of Contents, similarly to how I described above. If you’re using a 100% digital system, you might not need a spreadsheet as you can search your file structure, but I like to create one so I can see everything in one place and adding keywords or tags is helpful. It’s like the index for a book and helps us find what we need when we need it.
Naming Your Files
One of my clients who was writing a memoir that included a lot of historical information actually created a unique naming system for each document because she had so many. This is above and beyond what I would do, but she was creating a massive spreadsheet from events ranging from 1968-1976. Her system allowed her to sort items according to topic, date, or type of document which helped her as she structured her memoir and sorted through what actually needed to be in her story.
The name of each document followed this format: year-month-topic-type. So all of her folders and specific files looked like: 75-8-rodeo-schedule-pdf.
When we were working together to develop a system to organize the vast amounts of research she had, her face LIT UP when I suggested she create a spreadsheet. She loves spreadsheets and organizing and got excited about a system to name each file and insert it into her spreadsheet. This made perfect sense to her.
Renaming each file like this would make my brain explode, so again, create a system that works for you! It might take a few tries to get something that works AND that you will use, so keep it user friendly for yourself. If it’s too complicated, you won’t use it which defeats the whole purpose.
Moving forward, you’ll want to keep your research organized as you go, so when you find an article or resource, file it into the appropriate folder and immediately list it on your spreadsheet.
Tips for Sorting Research
Tip #1 – Name your folders and files with details and specifics
When you are researching, you’ll find lots of resources with similar information or titles. You’ll also have files with similar topics, so be specific and clear as you name your files. Like my memoir client, you might create a system for naming for each file to help you stay organized.
Tip #2 – Include all of the necessary citation information with the original document.
You do not want to inadvertently plagiarize someone, so make sure you cite every single source that you use. You must give credit where credit is due! For help with citing sources and avoiding plagairizing, the OWL (online writing lab) at Purdue is a great resource.
For a start, in your documents, either handwritten on printed PDF’s or noted on your spreadsheet, make sure you’ve got the author’s name, the book or article title, the date it was published, the date you accessed it, and the page numbers. If you’re using scholarly sources, this is easy to get, but again, check out the OWL for specifics on citations.
Tip #3 – Create a “Link” document for each topic area
If you don’t want to download and print your PDF’s and prefer to keep those sources online, create one Google doc, Word doc, or Scrivener file for online articles where you paste the link and a brief summary. You can also do this on your spreadsheet. Either works well if you want to avoid printing a ton of articles.
Personally, I prefer to print because I take margin notes and sticky notes, and I like having the resources. But, this also adds the step of printing and sorting my resources into a binder and indexing it in my spreadsheet.
Tip #4 – How to use Kindle books for research
This tip comes from Anne Janzer’s book The Writing Process. It’s BRILLIANT. I used to avoid doing any research in books on my kindle until I learned this handy little trick. Now, I use it all the time. If you read on your kindle and find nuggets of useful information that you want to include in a project, you can highlight that information and make a note.
Then, when you get to your computer, open up the kindle app. You can copy and paste your highlighted sections and notes/thoughts directly onto a document on your computer that you can sort and organize in your research system.
Tip #5 – Keep Your Research Organized as You Do It
We think we’ll remember that one great idea or where we found a fact, but while our brains our brilliant, they often don’t remember what we think they will.
As you collect research documents, file them immediately in your system with a clear name (see tip #1).
I’d love to hear any additional tips that you’ve got for sorting and organizing your resources for your book projects.