Journalism 101: How to Do Research For a Nonfiction Story

Written by MasterClass

May 22, 2019 • 3 min read

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Whether you’re writing a research paper, journalistic article, historical fiction novel, or almost any other work, you’ll need to gather information, investigate facts, explore ideas, and organize your thoughts. These activities are all part of doing research.


What Is Research?

In journalism and nonfiction writing, research refers to the gathering of information on a particular topic. Research provides writers with context and a deeper understanding of what they want to write about. It is also helpful in shaping interview questions and the direction of the final work.

Every writer has a different research process. However, it almost always involves looking online, in libraries and archives, or out in the world. The goal is the same: to draw original conclusions.

5 Steps for Conducting Research

Conducting thorough research on a topic involves mining a number of different avenues and sources to find information. Some common guiding principles and search strategies include:

  1. Consult a range of information sources. Online resources are the easiest way to start, and will usually turn up the most up-to-date information. Try Google Scholar and other academic search engines to find relevant journal articles. If you are a member of a university library, you will likely also have access to subscription databases covering a wide range of journals, magazines and other resources. Other good research sources are books, photos, videos, surveys, newspaper articles, and people with firsthand experience who you can interview. There may be others, depending on your field.
  2. Evaluate and analyze your source material. You’re not just collecting sources to read them at face value. A common test, developed by Sarah Blakeslee at the librarians of California State University, Chico, is the CRAAP test. That means you should evaluate your source’s currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose. In general, give more credence to primary sources (first-person accounts, the first publication of a scientific study, a speech, a photo, a historical document) than secondary ones (newspaper reporting, a history book). You want your interpretation to be based on the evidence, not on someone else’s interpretation.
  3. Organize your research. Keeping track of all this information is perhaps the hardest part. Using a citation management app for your note-taking will help, and when you’re done with a source, re-read what you’ve written, assigning keywords and subtopic headings. Consider copying and pasting section to a different document, organized by theme, or into an outline of the draft work. If you prefer taking notes by hand, it can be helpful to write on index cards. Regardless of the format, make sure you are noting down the full citation including details like page numbers for your sources—you’ll be thankful you have them in the later stages of the research assignment.
  4. Go to the library. The library is full of underused librarians, whose job is to help you. Let them root through the archives and catalogs for you. While they’re doing that, go find the nonfiction book you loved most recently and start moving across the shelf. Nonfiction books are organized by topic so all the work is done here for you. Look through the volumes shelved near the book you liked and you’ll start to develop a richer understanding of the topic. Make notes about what you’re learning and identify the things you want to learn more about. And if you get stuck, go to a librarian and ask for help.
  5. Follow the footnotes. Always read the footnotes on any text or source you come across. Footnotes will lead you to other sources, often older ones—which can be just as valuable. There’s a common assumption that only information that’s current is useful. Nothing is further from the truth.

Learn more about research and writing in Malcolm Gladwell’s MasterClass.