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by Colleen McAllister

Stuck in an endless hole of research? Overwhelmed by what you still must learn in order to write your manuscript? Is it stopping you from moving forward?

Here’s how to refocus and make a directed approach that will break you out of your standstill. 

When I worked as a Hollywood film executive, part of my job was researching topics our CEO was interested in. I had to cover the topic quickly, gain a thorough working knowledge of it, then regurgitate what I learned in an interesting, easy-to-digest way. Topics ranged from the concept of Biohacking, to researching a video game company, to “futurists” and what they’re thinking about!

I usually had a few hours to turn my research around and zero knowledge of these topics beforehand. Under time pressure and a desire to impress my boss, I learned how to do comprehensive research in no time flat. Here are some tips to help you do the same!

Step 1: Make Your Plan:

  • Set a goal. Before you start doing any research, write down, in one sentence, what you want to accomplish.
    • For example: “A basic understanding of the concept biohacking and what’s cool about it.”
  • Make a list of questions. Writing out questions you have about the topic will keep you from googling wildly with no direction.  
    • For example: “What is the definition of biohacking? What’s dangerous about it? What’s incredible about it?”
  • Set a time limit. This is SO important. You think you need a week? Give yourself a day. I like one- to two-hour chunks of time. The shorter time helps you avoid becoming overwhelmed. You’ll be surprised how much you learn in one hour. Set the timer!

Step 2: Do the Research:

  • Stay disciplined. Focus, absorb, distill. What are the big takeaways? The interesting examples? Keep a bulleted list next to you.
  • Follow what’s interesting. Use your own attention span as a litmus test — are you getting bored? You’re probably diving too deep. Move on.
  • Use fun resources. Nonfiction kids’ books distill information about a subject clearly and simply, and they use PICTURES! Find a podcast on the subject and hear directly from the experts. Tired of words? Try an image search for your subject. Head to Pinterest, see if other people have collected visuals on what you’re looking for.  
  • Check yourself. Check your goal. Are you accomplishing what you set out to do? Are you answering your questions?
  • Stay realistic. You don’t need to know everything about a subject to understand it.Ask yourself: “Do I know enough to move on?”

Step 3: Get Writing!

  • When is the research done? Can you turn around and talk about this subject to a friend and get them interested in it? If the answer is yes, you’re ready to dive back into your book.

Now you have a specific place to start and a set amount of time to do your research in. You’re ready to roll! Don’t forget to enjoy the process!

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Colleen McAllister has worked as a film & TV executive in Los Angeles on such titles as Minions, The Secret Life of Pets, SING, and Hasbro’s My Little Pony and Equestria Girls series. She is currently an animated television writer for Netflix.

Author photos provided by author. Stock image of books by Debby Hudson on Unsplash.