the word RESEARCH spelled in Scrabble letters on a diagonal

Documenting Your Research

Documenting Your Research: Best Practices for the Indie Author

the word RESEARCH spelled in Scrabble letters on a diagonal

Do your research—and track it, too. CC image Research photo credit: Phlebotomy Tech. Some rights reserved.

How do I keep track of where I found my information? What information or which sources are okay to use? Do I need to worry about format?

I work with a lot of nonfiction authors, and I get this type of question a lot. But questions of research apply to all writers, whether fiction or nonfiction. You shouldn’t lay claim to work that is not yours, for reasons of credibility and because legally, it’s the wise thing to do.*

When I discuss documenting research with my authors, I include an additional layer of consideration, equally important to the creative process, although not a legal requirement: how can you best keep track of your sources in a manner that most supports your writing? This addition is important to me because of the ways writers can get sucked down rabbit holes of research, whether to answer legitimate questions or as a way to avoid writing.

First of all, be legal—Acknowledge your sources

Nobody likes someone else taking credit for work they haven’t done. Don’t be that person. Taking someone’s writing or ideas as your own is illegal, and it also makes you look like a total loser—a great way to establish credibility in your field. (Sarcasm.)

The question of fair use comes up a lot in this context. We’ll come back to fair use at the end of this post; for now remember that “fair use” is a method of excusing using someone else’s work without receiving explicit permission to use it. Fair use does not mean you get to use the work and not give the credit. See Chicago Manual of Style Chapter 4 for more information. Always, always, always acknowledge your sources.

Second, avoid rabbit holes

Writers are often unsure how much they need to acknowledge, or how extensively they need to acknowledge it. Early in the process, especially if during a first draft or a draft you haven’t shared with any beta readers, don’t get bogged in this detail. Collect the information you’d need to find and credit your source again later. Don’t stop writing to deal with minutia.

My reasons for this are pragmatic in the extreme. It’s a first draft. Do you know how much changes in a first draft? Raise your hands, anyone who’s ever written one—how often have you scrapped entire chunks of your writing?

You might end up never using the information at all, in which case, citations are moot. But keep track of what you’re using as you’re using it. Deleting what you don’t want later is easy. Hunting down your references months after your original burst of inspiration is a headache.

How do I take notes?

What information do you need? For a complete list, see your friendly neighborhood Chicago Manual of Style for most book publishing (academic or specialist texts may use another stylebook). Basic details include: author, publishing details such as publisher name, and date of publication. If you’re quoting from a book, note the page number and the edition. If you’re using online resources, you’ll need a URL, page title or header, and possibly the date you accessed it. If you’re quoting from an interview, make sure you have the transcript AND permission to quote that person.

Note this is NOT a complete list of the information you might need to include IN THE FINAL BOOK. But this IS all the information you should need to track down your source again, without disappearing down rabbit holes.

Take notes in the way that makes the most sense to you. You’ll know right away what’s easiest for you to do and to keep writing. I’ve seen authors use the following options:

  • A notebook.
  • A separate Word document.
  • Footnotes/endnotes (Word tracks the numbers automatically).
  • Scrivener “Notes” or “Research” folders.
  • The Comment feature in Word.
  • Notes in the margin of a printed hard copy.
  • Post-it notes.

The important question is: can you find what you need again easily later? Use that.

What’s a good source?

I hope we all understand that, while useful, Wikipedia is not your first choice. Since anyone can create or edit a page, this isn’t Ground Zero for accuracy. Wikipedia can be a great jumping-off point, but I wouldn’t want to include it in my list of References—unless perhaps I was writing a farce and/or a piece that uses a Wikipedia page as inspiration.

There are many reputable repositories of information online, and I suggest you see Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success by Kelly James-Enger for some great starters. Generally, if reporters love it, you’re in good shape. We also trust large organizations where information goes through many layers of verification more than Edith’s Editorial Experience. Use your common sense.

Online resources have the advantage of immediate access, but the downside is the impermanent nature of the Web. Take good notes when you pull information online: copy the direct URL, use the DOI (digital object identifier) for a published journal article, record your date of access, any title, and the published date on the page, if given. Later on, if the page moves, you might be able to relocate it. Or you might need to find another source.

Fair Use and Copyright

Copyright and fair use are large and complex topics, which is why lots of law and many books have been written on the subject. I am not here as a replacement for legitimate legal advice. I am here as the voice of reason to say: always give credit, and whenever you can, ask for permission for the use of the text or other material.

If you are an independent author/publisher, the responsibility for securing permissions falls to you. There may be instances where you must pay for permissions, but not always. Again, I recommend doing this once you’ve moved past the first/early-draft stage, and you are reasonably sure you will include the material in your finished work.

Securing permissions may take time. Maintain a paper trail of the fact you have asked, any responses you’ve received, and from whom. Permissions are especially important for the use of any graphics or imagery.

The bottom line

Most aspects of research and documentation are common sense. Keep track of where you found information, give appropriate credit, and secure permissions as you need, once you know what material you will include. Most of us have nightmares from high school or college English classes about the appropriate form citations should take (is it in italics? Do I need a period or a comma? MLA! APA! Chicago!), but honestly, the format only becomes important during copyediting, and your editor will check these details. Don’t drive yourself nuts. Practice responsible information-gathering, and as much as possible, avoid rabbit holes while writing.

*I am not a legal expert and this article is not meant to give or to replace legal advice, nor is it meant to be an exhaustive discourse on the subjects discussed. Please consult a legal professional for specific advice.

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