Research skills for non-fiction books: My top seven tips for Internet research

Internet research brainstormingResearch is an essential element to any quality non-fiction book but sometimes it can be hard to know where to start, and indeed, when to stop.

The first thing you need to do is tackle the structure of your book and break it down into a list of contents. For each chapter you should write a short outline so you know what the aim of the chapter is and what it is adding to the book as a whole. This will give your research focus.

Before starting any in-depth research I sit down and do some concerted brainstorming, writing down ideas and avenues I want to explore. This allows me to think creatively and freely, unhampered by other books or articles written on the subject. Once I have a good list of starting points my research can begin.

Wikipedia

The most obvious starting point for any research is the Internet. With any search Wikipedia tends to come up first and it is a good idea to read through what they have as it often encapsulates a subject fairly concisely, allowing you to identify key themes to explore.

Reading the Wikipedia entry will also allow you to recognise the text so you can see in your further searches where the same information is just regurgitated from Wikipedia and where it is actual new, useful information. This can help you to ascertain if the website is a good independent source or if it just reproduces information from other sites.

The best Wikipedia pages will include useful references that will allow you to go direct to the source and read in more detail.

It is key to remember that anyone can write a Wikipedia page so it should not ever be used as a sole source of information. I would recommend finding at least two further sources to back up any information found on Wikipedia, especially as Wikipedia pages are often copied across the Internet, sometimes perpetuating wrong information.

As you go through Wikipedia and follow the linked sources take note of any books or articles mentioned that you can later look up in the library.

Once you have covered Wikipedia and followed the sources cited it is time to go back to Google to try and find further online resources.

Search terms

With any subject researched on the Internet I would generally recommend starting the search with the widest parameter of search terms and then slowly sieving the information by re-searching with filter terms such as ‘history’, ‘about’ or ‘information’ or keywords or key people from your subject. This should start to uncover a wide range of online articles to further your knowledge and direct your research.

As you read through results it is worth assessing the reliability of the website as you go along. Scholarly journals and articles can be very useful and reliable but remember any information from a source such as this must be cited. Articles from newspapers and magazines can also be enlightening and can draw your attention to authors and experts who could be of use.

Keep a list of books or articles referenced within the pages of your online research so that you can go on to look up the original sources yourself in the library.

Statistics and sources

As well as background information the Internet can also provide some excellent sources for facts and figures. For example, the Office for National Statistics, has a whole host of fascinating statistics that can be used to add colour and weight to your writing. A fact is often a great way to reel an audience in. Did you know that in 2013, 710 people in the UK were estimated to be aged over 105 years old?  Or that the most popular baby names in the UK in 2013 were Oliver and Amelia?

Other great sources for facts and figures include: OECD, WHO, United Nations Statistics, Pew Research Center, CIA World Factbook and the World Bank.

The Internet is a mine of useful information and can be a wonderful resource for researching a subject but I would recommend using the Internet as a starting point only, a library should be the place for more thorough research. See my blog post on ‘Library research’ to get the most out of a library visit.

My top seven tips for Internet research:

  1. Brainstorm your idea, writing down keywords and themes you want to explore.
  2. Read Wikipedia entries first as they often provide a good summary but should not be used as the sole source as they can be unreliable.
  3. Bear in mind that articles can often be regurgitated across the Internet so wrong information can be perpetuated. Only use information that can be backed up by at least two reliable sources.
  4. Reliable sources include websites from an official body or government source, quality newspapers, scholarly journals or well-known encyclopedias such as Britannica.
  5. Start your internet search with the widest parameter search terms and then refine and sift by adding keywords.
  6. Keep note of any good sources and write down authors or books that have been referenced so you can look up the original text in a library later.
  7. Keep a list of useful websites for your bibliography.
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