Top 5 Things to Do to at the Start of a New Nonfiction Project

Beginnings are so exciting, but sometimes that excitement can overshadow organization. But I (Jess here) promise, every minute spent organizing at the beginning will save so much time over the long run. If you organize your research, citations, and resources from early on, you won’t have to go backwards and untangle the mess that invariably happens as those books, articles, sticky tabs and pages of notes begin to pile up.

  1. First, think about using a citation manager. I use Bookends, but there are lots of others, including EndNote, Zotero, and Mendeley. Not sure which one to use? Here’s an article from the University of Chicago about which one might be right for you. I chose Bookends because I read it plays well with Scrivener, and a friend of mine loves it. I’m no Bookends super user  (yet), but it has made my workflow so much simpler. I just drag and drop my source citation right into my text when I quote or reference it. I’m scared to death of accidentally plagiarizing, so this has prevented lots of nightmares. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: using the placeholder [citation TK] will bite you in the ass. Maybe not today, maybe not on your current project, but eventually. Just because you know where that quote came from now does not mean you will remember in six or nine or eighteen months.  

  2. I know this Top Five is supposed to be about nonfiction research, not #WriterTaxes, but do yourself a favor and have a system for organizing your receipts so you can deduct your research materials at tax time. Books, articles, printer paper, sticky tabs, article storage boxes, pens, an external hard drive for backing up your files...all of these are legit business expenses for a nonfiction writer. If you use Amazon for your book purchases and blithely say to yourself, “I can just download my entire order history at tax time, easy peasy,” please apply a taser at full charge to your head now and save yourself the pain later. Trust me, it won’t work. Keep track of your receipts and invoices as you go. 

  3. Organize your books and articles with a paper and digital system that makes sense to you. I keep my books grouped on my shelves by chapter and my paper articles boxed by topic so I can pull the whole lot when I’m working on a particular section of the book or have to take those resources on a trip with me. Here are my favorite boxes for paper article/magazine/whatever storage. On the digital side, I make a folder for my new work in progress, and inside, I make another folder called “Research” with subfolders for all applicable topics. When you download PDFs of academic research, their names are usually something unhelpful such as “Frankel-Maisel2018_Chapter_DevelopmentOfAMajorSubstanceUs.pdf” and trust me, if you toss that article along with 150 similarly unhelpfully named PDFs into one big “research” folder, your head will explode when you go looking for that one article about methamphetamine use with the title you can’t remember.*

  4. Stock up on sticky tabs. I use these page markers by Semikolon and keep a pack in my bag, one next to my bed, in my desk drawer, and everywhere else I might read. And yes, I have a system for how I use those tabs. I pick three tab colors per book: one color for ideas I want to come back to, one color for quotes I might use, and one for HOLY MOLY DON’T FORGET TO USE THIS BIT. The first two get stuck on the side of the page and the last goes at the top of the page, in case I forget my color choices. I often use red for that last category, just to be sure I don’t miss those essential bits.

  5. Take time to research beyond the boundaries of your subject matter. I’m not giving you license to waste whole weeks on unrelated topics, but don’t be afraid to venture down some rabbit holes. Thanks to increasingly precise search engines, we tend to thin-slice research and fail to notice that ideas are connected, often in surprising and fascinating ways. Thin-slicing can save time, sure, but it can also be disastrously self-limiting. Remember in seventh grade, when you had to write that report the Kennedys, and the only way to find your sources was to look the topic up in the card catalog, then stand in the stacks and browse through all the titles? The book about Jackie Kennedy’s correspondence with her cousin may not be what you were originally looking for, but it could prove invaluable for finding a new way to write about the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

A new research project can be so exciting, so exhilarating, that it can be hard to hit pause and label that folder or enter that citation. However, the more organized you are on the day you begin, the easier it is going to be to compile your bibliography in a year and a half when all you want to do is get it off to your editor and collect the “approved manuscript” installment of your advance

*Bonus image below: a screen shot of Jess’ “Research” folder for her WIP.

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