How I Research Books

I’m grateful for several recent emails from writers and pastors asking how I used research in writing 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. First, thanks for pointing out all the research. This new book is my most ambitious investigation to date, and hopefully a pattern I can use for future book projects on technology and media.

On my process, here are some quick thoughts for the interested in the form of a public email.

Once I have a serious idea for a book project, which is about every week, my process begins. (My wife said last night: “If I had a nickel for every time you bring me a new book idea . . . .”)

But about 95% of my book ideas die for some reason or another, many of the better ideas simply get turned into longform feature articles for DG.

Once I settle on a workable book idea (like smartphones), and after a three-month process of evaluation with my wife, friends, and publisher, I’ll begin by reading about 50 articles and studies (mostly non-Christian ones) to get a general sense of the broader cultural conversation on the topic. From this, and from a biblical worldview, I’ll pen a very basic outline for the book based around questions to answer and a central thesis. This becomes my book proposal.

Once I get the publisher’s thumbs up, I first inspect-read the ten best books in the field I can find, usually by non-Christians. After this point I’m ready to begin drafting paragraph seed-thoughts within 1st drafts of the chapters.

The book begins to grow organically.

In the next six months, my goal is to produce chapters with ~four detailed paragraphs, ~four related points of interest in seed form. Once these major paragraphs are all written for every chapter and the intro and outro, it goes out for initial review at the conceptual level. At this point my goal is to have a 6,000-word draft of major fragments.

Once I see cohesion in these seed paragraphs and I like the way the chapters are organized and structured, and based on early confirmation from others, then I can begin using these paragraphs to “hook” my present and future research discoveries. This is why I have to get seed paragraphs down asap. These paragraphs may move around in the book, but they comprise for me a framework matrix, a skeleton of ideas, for me to pin the bulk of my research work, which is yet to come.

My writing is always driven by curiosity. I want to learn, grow, and know things myself. And because I love to tackle massive problems and get my arms around as many tricky issues as possible, and to get myself in waters too deep for me, I cannot manage full-throttled research until this point. I must have a matrix of core ideas around me. Only now can the bulk of my research, the other 80%, ensue. Once the governor is taken off my research (because I now have places to pin relevant discoveries), those seed paragraphs grow quickly into subsections, with refinements to my own thinking, and with confirmation details (sources, texts) now getting applied to particular sentences as footnotes.

Those growing seed paragraphs will begin asking me questions, showing me gaps in my own thinking, they will help frame my interviews, and they will prove themselves in value simply by helping me decide what WILL NOT fit in the project.

At some point in the process, maybe half way through writing the first draft, I dedicate two weeks to reading Scripture cover-to-cover, merely looking for anything and everything related to my theme.

Again, it all grows organically, refinement happening all along. Meditation, writing, deleting, editing, refining, rewriting, rethinking, course-correcting — it’s all happening all along the process as I labor towards cohesion.

It’s amazing how much content you can net if you take your time to slowly read and think and watch for online articles. I must write books in my free time (weekends), so my projects cannot progress quickly. I’m confined to think of book projects in a three-year pace, which actually seems to be the right amount of time to thoroughly think through one significant issue to sufficient depth.

And since pastors often email me this research question, I should note that this same principle I use for chapters is useful for developing future sermons. I’ve heard Mike Bullmore encourage pastors to make folders for each sermon several months out ahead, and then keep your eye out for illustrations and points, and seed paragraph ideas you have, that you can intentionally file away for future use.

For me, creating an early framework by which you can process everything else you later encounter is vital to a large research project. And of course there’s no substitute for patience with a project. Don’t rush it, wait, watch, read, be clear in your mind what you’re looking for, discern what you read online, and know where to put things as you come across them in life.

I wish everyone could read the web with a three-year research project in view. It brings incredible clarity to your priorities.

This is a great question, thanks to everyone who emailed me.


PS: As for specific research sites, I really don’t have any secrets. JSTOR articles and The New York Times appear a lot in my research. Pew Research, too. Lots of books, many of them by non-Christians. Honestly, one of the greatest helps are my online followers who, once they know I’m working on a book project, will email me hundreds of related links and leads during the process.

6 thoughts on “How I Research Books

  1. Tony, thanks for writing this post and the other recent ones. I’m intrigued by the comment related to starting with non-Christian sources. I suppose this is influenced by the subject topic. For example, The Joy Project was probably a little different, right? (I’m rereading this now with a new Christian.) my favorite comment on the post was probably this one: “I must write books in my free time (weekends), so my projects cannot progress quickly.” I think this kind of transparency is very helpful. Thanks for taking on a three-year project!

  2. Right, yes TJP was different. I’m talking about 12Ways which is a model tech/media book for me, one I hope to repeat in some form, and the topic of what I’m outlining here. As a journalist, I start with understanding where the conversation is at, then moving towards Scripture. Rather than, as a pastor would, beginning with the text of Scripture and then moving out to the contemporary application. I very much am drawing here on the preacher/journalist distinction made by Andy Crouch and others to explain my own process.

  3. Hi Tony, just came across this and found it very helpful. Especially the need to work within the limits of the time we have, and, establishing a framework around core ideas early on so we don’t chase rabbit trails with the research.

    I had a question about the way you put a book proposal together. From your post, it sounds like you do your initial research (the ~50 articles), think about your topic biblically, then come up with a basic outline focused on key questions and a central thesis. Is there more to it than that before you approach your publisher?

    I ask because I’m slowly moving toward my own book proposal, and have seen other methods that seem much more involved. Perhaps the relative simplicity is owing to your prior relationship (and trust) with your publisher?

  4. Just about every time I’ve heard an author talk about their approach to a publisher with a proposal, the proposal is a longshot guesstimate about how the book is going to shake out in the end. Predicting in a proposal how a book will finally turn out is something nobody can ever predict, but the author has to take a stab at the whole thing on paper. The author is forced to “posture” with assurance about the unsure future that is necessarily part of the process, even if all the literature about crafting proposals tells you you need to know everything about the book you want to write. That’s humanly impossible unless you have been teaching a course in the academy for a decade and now seek to convert the course to a book, and even then I would suspect a lot of unforseen twists and turns.

  5. Thanks for this honest, sobering response. It’s freeing to know that we can only be so certain about how the book is going to turn out, even if there’s a certain amount of ‘posturing’ inherent in the proposal process.

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