The Art of the Quick-and-Dirty Research Dive
Simple, common-sense, and oft-overlooked methods for getting the most out of your sources as quickly as possible!
As I mentioned in this week’s installment of ‘Chapter 1’, I’ve set myself some rather ambitious writing goals for February. One of those goals: drafting a 25,000-word book proposal (including sample chapter) on a subject I used to know pretty well but haven’t worked on in, oh, a decade or so.
By the end of the month.
Now, for a research junkie like me, a goal like this has its perks. It’s fun to dive back into a subject I was once fascinated by, and still find pretty darned interesting. I’m re-reading stuff I thoroughly enjoyed reading years ago, and I’m getting to read new things, which is always fun for me. It sort of feels like going on an information-binge-cum-expedition. Woohoo!!!
But the whole time I’m on this joyride, I’m also thinking, Eeeeeeeeeeeek I need to get through this stuff as quickly as possible!!!
And that’s where the art of doing quick-and-dirty research comes in.
Sometimes you just need to get oriented within a topic as quickly and thoroughly as possible. While there’s no real substitute for deep, focused reading (or re-reading, a topic for another time), there are ways of covering ground more quickly.
Here are a few simple tips to help you become a more efficient researcher in the arts and humanities. Some of them will seem like no-brainers to the more experienced among you, but I hope they’re helpful to those of you who are still figuring out what research methods work best for you!
1. Work that table of contents
It’s easy to forget how useful ToCs can be. But when you’re confronted with a massive tome or a volume of essays that’s crucial for your research, the ToC can help direct you to the parts you need most while helping you skip the stuff you don’t. Always take a moment to glance at it—it can at the very least give you a better sense of the book’s contents and how the book is organised, which can in turn help you figure out what to look at first.
2. Footnotes, baby! (And endnotes…ugh.)
Look through those citations! Footnotes (and, yes, even endnotes) are a great tool to help you find the most important sources for your topic, sources that may not even be mentioned in the main text but are listed in the footnotes (or, ugh, endnotes) after phrases like ‘For more on subject X, see…’ or ‘Key studies of Y include…’. Your reading list will be growing before you know it! AND there’s another bonus: it’s in the notes that you’ll find the exact location of the information or the quote you want to use or read in context.
This is what sometimes feels like cheating to me—I didn’t have to read the whole book to find that citation, or hunt through several volumes. But then I start to think like a scientist. Whenever a scientist publishes a study, that scientist has to ‘show their work’ so that people who read the study can—in theory—replicate it. We humanities folks obviously do things slightly differently, but citations and notes are some of the places where we show our work.
So when you find a useful citation (of a manuscript source, or a line in a multi-volume edition of a Latin text, or from the Bible, or from another study, or whatever), and when you chase it up for your own research, you’re following the breadcrumbs we scholars are supposed to leave behind us. (It’s one of many reasons why plagiarism is such a big deal, intellectually speaking.)
On a related note: always, always, always make sure you actually go to the original source and check whatever is being cited. Don’t just snatch up a citation from a footnote without chasing it down and looking at it in context.
3. Notice the name-dropping
What names keep cropping up again and again in the footnotes? Those are the people whose work you’ll want to look at first!
Are there particular studies that keep getting cited over and over? Those are the studies you want to put at the top of your reading list!
Noticing these patterns is an easy way to pinpoint what is essential reading on a particular subject. Of course, since you’re a researcher, you’ll probably find a much narrower rabbithole to run down eventually as you figure out what you’re really interested in. But start with the essentials before you branch out!
4. The index is (sometimes) your friend
Notice I say sometimes. Whenever I see that an index consists of nothing more than proper names and place names, I want to track down whoever prepared that index so I can ask them, WHYYYYYYYYYY?!?!??
A good index is a lifesaver. It can show you what pagespans cover specific topics, which can help you focus on just those bits, rather than a whole book. Sometimes, those ‘see also’ and ‘see under’ notes can even help prevent you from overlooking related topics!
5. Bless the bibliography!!
Again, this might seem like a no-brainer, but how many of us actually, really read through the bibliographies of the books and articles we read?
Ok, maybe all of you do and I’m the only one who didn’t figure it out for a few years. But even so, I’m pretty sure I’ve only done that with a few super-important books in my work. It’s especially helpful when I’m getting into a new topic and I want to get a sense of what the essential reading is, or what editions people are using, or what kind of stuff I most want to read. And it’s paid off every time. More for the reading list!!!
…and last, but not least…
GOOGLE: THE LAST RESORT
I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous. But a good old-fashioned search has helped me to find super-recent publications that haven’t hit my university’s library bookshelves yet, or lower-profile publications that are relevant to my work. There’s a lot of great scholarship that’s shared on blogs and social media, and Google can help you find it.
…like I said earlier, there really isn’t any substitute for good, careful reading. At some point, that’s what you’re going to have to do. But if you get strategic about how you go about finding most important sources for your research, you can get to that phase much more efficiently
And, of course, I’m referring throughout to research in the arts and humanities. I imagine scientists have their own shortcuts (though they probably use some of the same ones we do!).