Tips for Organizing Research Material for a Nonfiction Writing Project

Nonfiction projects, whether it’s a memoir, an essay about a natural disaster, or a community history, are backed by research. For memoir there are clippings, journals and contemporary accounts. The essay involves interviews; as does the history, along with archival records. And each of those research forays adds to a growing stack of digital and paper documents.

Techniques for Creating Order Out of Chaos

A log jamb of research data must be organized to be useful.

For many writers this log jam of details becomes a troublesome impasse. Here’s some techniques for organizing that paper stack, based upon my current history project. Twin Islands, on British Columbia’s mainland coast, has had twenty owners, including a one-legged Scottish sheep farmer, an Anglican minister who died mysteriously, an international importer, German royalty related to Queen Elizabeth II, and an heiress. The structure for the book I’m writing will be chronological, with an underlying theme of nature’s power to heal.

I’ve filled three journals with reading and interview notes, and collected land records, guest books, photographs, films, paintings, pictures of artifacts, interviews, newspaper clippings, birth, death and marriage records, and e-mails from descendants, organized into:

  • Paper and electronic files, arranged by owners’ and caretakers’ names, and by miscellaneous subjects like maps, archaeology, and geology. (I prefer paper documents, but sometimes they’re too large to print, so I have both electronic and paper files.)
  • Each file has sub-categories. For the Andrews family of the 1930s to 1950s this includes a shipwreck, an arrest, a charismatic adopted daughter, the family import business, and the building of the Twin Islands Lodge. Each of these is clipped together with bright post-it-note headings.

The documents within those files are:

  • highlighted with items of interest;
  • margin notes remind me of possible quotes, dates, names, subjects, and repeating themes;
  • and specific and sensory details (a precious storytelling commodity!) are flagged.
  • That done, I wrote biographical sketches of each family, with dates highlighted to maintain chronology. (This solidified what happened when, and revealed story links, themes and research gaps.)

With the Documents in Order You’re Ready to Begin Writing!

The pattern on a Blue Willow plate tells an intricate love story about two lovers who met on a bridge .

This is my favourite stage. I’ve pulled all the little shards of information together in a process akin to repairing a once intricately patterned china plate that was shattered when it was tossed into an archival scrap pile. Surprising stories emerged as each piece slips into place, along with yawning gaps—resulting in yet more research.

My files are propped open as I write, with the highlighted quotes and details at the ready. And, as always, writing calls forth more questions because the process deepens thought—sending me back to my interviewees and the internet (a great source for global events.)

I highlighted dates as I wrote, for at-a-glace assurance that I’m sticking to the chronological structure. (Others might highlight subjects to ensure they stay on track.) And I footnoted everything, as source reminders. (I’ll drop most of them later, though I’ll keep the fully referenced version as an internal record.)

And then it’s on to the rewriting and revisions, fleshing out the best of the stories with scenes (or at least half-scenes), layering in specific and sensory details, and honing the wording to create a draft that’s ready for the editor.