Researching a Nonfiction Book

One of the questions I get most often from my students is how much research you need to do to write a nonfiction book. The first thing you need to know is that you don’t do a lot less research for a short book.

I just signed contracts for 4 new books. Two are for tweens and teens with a wordcount of 15,000 words each. The other two are hi-lo books. These are for tweens with a low reading level. Each of these books is 3,300 words. While I will do less research for the shorter books, I won’t know how much less until I get all four projects done. This is because it depends more on the project topic than it does the length of the book.

Each of the longer books will take about 6 weeks to complete. The shorter will take 2 to 3. But the process is much the same.

First I read through the series specs that the editor sent me. This will tell me more or less what they want for the book. Then I read several general pieces on the topic. Then I list out my chapter titles.

The next step is to dive into each chapter. I need four subheadings and three or four sidebars per chapter. As I outline, I add footnotes. I didn’t used to do this because I was afraid that it might clutter up the outline for my editor. But then I noticed that my editors had a tendency to ask questions about sources. Footnoting the outline makes it easier for both of us.

I turn in the outline with the first chapter. Once this is approved, I go back and write the whole thing. The information that I referenced in completing the outline is never enough to write the whole book. So I do more research as I go, adding even more footnotes and more sources.

By the time I finish, I may have as many as 60 sources for one of the shorter books and 200 for one of the longer. But, again, it depends on the topic. When I wrote about cancel culture, my editor actually recommended a book on surviving public humiliation. I read several psychological studies and sociological material and dozens of magazines and newspaper articles. But when I wrote on the Who, I was writing about a band that was and still is a big deal. There were books written about the band members and books written by the band members. That made the whole research process much easier.

So, how much research do you need to do? Enough to get the job done.