How Much Research Should I Do?

Saturday, August 18, 2012
One of my mad passions when it comes to writing is research and it is one of the topics I speak on at conferences.  Invariably, someone wants to know how much research they should do for an article or book.  The standard answer that most people give is “find every fact three times.”

Let me tell you a story.

One of my first research topics was the Chinese delegation to the St. Louis 1904 World’s Fair.  As Imperial China’s first official delegation to anything, it was a big deal.  The local papers dogged the delegates like paparazzi and were just about that accurate too.

Among the things they reported on was an attempted burglary.  Attempted because the nocturnal criminal couldn’t find the wallet in the delegate’s Chinese clothing, hanging in his room.  Allegedly, the delegate was so glad that the robber failed that he started wearing American trousers.  It made no sense, but I found this “fact” documented so frequently that I quit keeping track.  On the other hand, I found the retraction only once.  If I had gone with the “rule of three,” I would have compounded the error.

When someone asks me how much research they should do before writing their book, this is my answer.

  1. Research until you know enough about the topic to immediately spot a “fact” that doesn’t fit with the rest.
  2. Look at the authors and publishers of your sources.  What are their biases?  How will this effect how they report on the material?
  3. Make sure your sources represent a variety of view points.  Ten sources with one perspective will report on something in much the same way.  You need more than one opinion.
  4. Whenever possible, find primary sources.  This way you get the facts without another person filtering them for you.
  5. Research until you aren’t finding anything new.

That is when you are ready to write.


Sue Bradford Edwards also blogs at One Writer's Journey.


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