Aliens made me great at research— and they can do the same for you

This post originally appeared in Medium’s The Writer’s Cooperative on Nov 2, 2018.

I remember my 7th grade research paper on aliens as if it were yesterday. After a week-long unit on the research process, Ms. Stacy turned us loose on whatever topic we wanted. The goal of this project was to develop a research question then investigate it until we arrived at a research-based conclusion. And OH MY GOD, I was obsessed with aliens at the time, so my choice was obvious. After stocking up on office supplies — index cards, highlighters, notebooks, an index card holder and dividers for said holder — and collecting a number of resources — all hardbound books, since it was the ‘90s — my research mise en place was, well, in place.

I worked diligently on that project for weeks. I scoured the pages of my parents’ Time Life; Mysteries of the Unknown and Encyclopedia Brittanica book collections for evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial life (I’m old AF). I had different highlighters for mentions of the government, mentions of astrophysics, mentions of human encounters with aliens. I dictated these coded excerpts onto index cards and filed them next to their categorical brethren in my index card holder. Then ultimately, this symphony of facts came together in what Ms. Stacy publicly declared as the best research paper she had seen in her entire teaching career. In front of my then boyfriend, Forrest. I was on cloud nine.

I had no idea the depth of the seeds planted with that project — Ms. Stacy’s research process is still the one I use today.

When discussing writing, I often talk more about reading and research than almost anything else. So I thought my mentor’s recent post about how to be a better reader was an excellent place to begin a discussion on the research process for writing. Since I teach qualitative research and have worked professionally as a researcher, I know that even mentioning the term “research” immediately puts most people to sleep. But since I’m a total nerd, I get SO EXCITED when discussing research. For research is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of writing, a step that many are happy to skim over or simply skip altogether.

I’ll start by describing my YLR project, AKA the Ol’ Yeller.

YLR originally stood for Year of the Lit Review. And while I ultimately decided this project was more like an annotated bibliography than a lit review, the name Ol’ Yeller stuck. What began as an attempt to synthesize various concepts I studied in grad school in order to determine writing topic opportunities, the Ol’ Yeller has become a mainstay in both my reading and research process. Every book I read now makes it into this research repository, a database that lives in Microsoft One Note. Each book I read gets its own section in the YLR notebook, and the following information gets collected:

  1. Excerpts: I am a big fan of marking the shit out of my books, so everything I highlight (with a couple of exceptions) makes it to the Excerpts page. On this page I transcribe the verbatim excerpts I highlighted, along with their page numbers and any notes I placed in the margins of the book.

  2. Vocabulary and Additional Resources: I also highlight new (or delicious but often forgotten) vocabulary words and secondary resources that interest me, so these get their own page in the notebook.

  3. Summary: I am the first to admit — and this is particularly true of more heady or dense works of nonfiction — that I have a tough time recalling the information that I read. Thus, for every book I read, I include my own summary of the basic premise and points of the book. I tend to do this after dictating the highlighted excerpts, when the takeaways of the book are particularly top-of-mind.

  4. Questions/aha moments: This is where I start to come into dialogue with the piece of work. It is here that I really begin to think critically about anything that I didn’t understand, anything that I wanted the book to discuss but it didn’t, or anything that stood out to me as particularly revelatory or revealing.

  5. Evaluation: This is the section where I use my questions and aha moments to identify opportunities for taking the material further or in a different direction.

  6. Coding: The last step in my process is to code the material. During the coding step, I add a column to my excerpts table to capture any overarching categories each excerpt fits in. I often write each code in a distinct color to increase scannability in the future.

My Ol’ Yeller, in Microsoft OneNote

My Ol’ Yeller, in Microsoft OneNote

Again, this is basically my “Ms. Stacy process,” just a little more in depth and with updated technology.

“But Danielle, is this amount of work really necessary? That sounds time consuming AF!” Yep, it’s time consuming. Yep, it takes work. But it’s work that I’m frontloading before writing time even begins. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been A) brainstorming topic ideas, B) having a conversation with a student or colleague about a project or organization or problem, or C) actually working on a writing project and have been SO HAPPY to have this repository at my fingertips. Often a simple search of a particular topic or keyword pulls up content and connections that I never would have been able to make with brainpower alone. I am only human, after all. I don’t have the intellectual capacity of a time/space-traveling alien…