Academia is built on a foundation of careful and thoughtful research. No subject can be understood or expanded upon without first learning the history behind it.
When it comes time to write a thesis or long form research essay, the most important element will not be your writing skills (though that does help) but rather your source material. Knowing what other scholars have already said on the subject, and being in a position to agree with or refute their claims, will form the backbone of your content.
For a student or a researcher, the need for a smart research technique is paramount. Simply reading as much as you can find on a topic isn’t enough. That kind of research leads to an overload of information and eventual burnout without achieving any goals.
Today we’re featuring three tips to help you research better.
#1 Read Smarter
During my final year as an undergrad, I had a part time job in a writing center. One student I’d been helping had an impressive stack of books she hoped to use as research material. As the semester went on, she struggled get her research project written because she was spending so much time reading the background material.
“How can I write anything when I have thousands of pages to read first?”
I was taken aback. She was literally reading ever back cover to cover, taking notes to boot.
There’s a better way.
Reading for research purposes is very different than reading for pleasure. When you’re researching a topic and looking for source material, the reading should be something more like in-depth skimming. You can’t afford to read books in their entirety. In fact, if you’re researching a topic and you do find a book you feel you should read cover to cover, there’s a very good chance the topic you’re researching has already been covered in enough depth.
Once you’ve identified a volume you think has useful content, head straight to the table of contents. Chapter and section titles will be a strong indicator of content that might pertain to your needs. I like to bookmark those sections and go to the index or glossary next. Scan that for the keywords and phrases you’ve identified (more on that under the next tip). If you have 20 keywords and a book includes 15 of them in their glossary, there’s a good chance they speak to your topic.
Note the pages from the glossary that include your keywords.
Now go back through and skim the sections you pulled from the table of contents. By skim, I mean you’re going through this fast. Bold text, image captions, the first line of each paragraph maybe. Quotes are great too.
If any of the content you just skimmed through made you think “I could use this” go back and read the entire section. Keep an eye out for your keywords and phrases within these sections. You’ll key in on lines that will inform your research and may make for good quotes in your written content.
#2 Take Notes Well
Now that you’re looking at source material with an eye toward your specific needs, you need to evaluate how you take notes.
The absolute first thing I always do make a list of keywords and phrases that pertain to my research. Start this list long, filling in as many words as you can imagine. Once you’ve taken some time to fill in your list, you’ll want to winnow it down to the most relevant 20-30 terms.
You don’t need to take a hard line on the count of keywords. If you come up with 18 that fit well, don’t force 2 more. The idea is to have a list of words and phrases that associate with your topic and the direction your project will take.
Now you take this list into your reading of various source material to help you identify the specific areas of larger volumes you want to read in detail.
As you start reading, you’ll need to take careful notes. This gets into personal preference, but I recommend one of two methods for note taking. Either take notes longhand and type the up later, or type them directly. It’s really about what method is most comfortable for you.
I highly recommend Evernote for typing your notes.
Using a pen and notebook to take your first round of notes is my favorite method. A study for 2014 also found that using a pen and paper help note-takers retain more of the information. The only time I advocate for using your computer is to grab a direct quote from digital source material. But even then, I like writing out the quote.
Because what I do is to take notes in a notebook by hand, then later go back and type them into my Evernote folder. The hand written notes can be messy and might lack some details.
So, I advocate for organizing you pages with a ‘header’ that includes the title of your source material, the date, and the page range you’re reading. This will help you organize your notes when you go through and type them into your preferred word processor.
#3 Keep a Running Bibliography
This last one is kind of simple, but easy to overlook too. The bibliography is a key element of your research project, but also one that may not seem crucial while you’re doing the research and writing of your paper.
Depending on the type of paper you’re writing, the format will vary. Generally, you’ll be using MLA, APA, or Chicago. Whatever the format, you should start a digital file and add information for every piece of source material as you research it. You might not end up using all of these items, but its still worth the effort to record them before you are finalizing the project.
The major upside of preparing your bibliography in advance goes beyond just simplifying the end of the project. You also have a running list of sources and can make added notes to reference the usefulness, relevance, and other points regarding the source. Did the book have an image you might include? Did the author mention another book you might want to examine?
The running bibliography doesn’t need to be final. It’s a tool to help you keep track of your sources.
There’s lots of other points and tips for researching you can consider, but these three provide a great base to start from. Keep notes in a consistent format, keep track of your sources, and read with an eye toward the material that matters. These tips will save you time and streamline your project research so you can get to the fun part (writing your essay or book!).
Paul is the Technical Writer at Lulu, responsible for all the words you see on our site (misspellings included). He also manages the community site – http://connect.lulu.com/en/ – and in his free time, he’s an avid reader and short story writer.