Research Tips

for Self-Published Authors

To make your work the strongest it can be, especially if you want to be considered an authority on the subject (you are, after all, writing a book on the topic), you'll want to do the proper due diligence with your research. Having collected the most authoritative, most current sources on your topic to back up your work—and knowing the dates you accessed online research—will save your project time and money.

1. Quote only the original. Although it can be tempting to quote blog posts or articles of people who've read studies or regulations, it's better to go to the original source and read it for yourself. The blogger may have taken a fact or statistic out of context, made a decimal-place error, relied on a study that was later redacted, done the math wrong, or cited a rule or recommendation that no longer is current. Don't turn your book into a game of telephone. Get it right, and get it straight from the source.

2. Consider the source. Examine the "About Us" page for the author or site editor's credentials. Don't just take any random person's word for it, no matter the topic. Look for empirical data and opinions of credentialed experts. Don't just trust the credibility of someone listed as "Dr." Does the person have an M.D., an N.D., or a doctoral degree on an unrelated topic? Is the M.D. degree from the United States? Has that self-professed "legal expert" been disbarred?

Remember what Mark Twain said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics." An advocacy group with an agenda could be slanting information to support its cause—or leaving out information that would present the issue in a balanced way, with the proper context. Go to objective sources when you can, such as educational institutions, county extension offices, government reports, and unbiased news outlets.

3. Watch out for wikis. Stephen Colbert famously played with Wikipedia by encouraging people to submit false information on elephants, just to make the point that you can't believe everything that you read online—especially if the site accepts user-generated material. If you can't determine the author of a source or the author's credentials, don't use it. If the web domain allows any user to submit articles, don't use it. Wikipedia can be useful as a jumping-off point to gather research, as entries often contain sources at the bottom, but it's never a source to quote in your book. See rule no. 1.

4. Save your research. It might amount to an entire filing cabinet or several gigs of external hard drive space, but if you need to defend your conclusions, you'll need your data, and you'll need to be able to find where you came up with your statistics should anyone challenge you on a point. Keep it all organized so you can cite in footnotes what was published when. With web links, you'll need to keep track of your access dates for your footnote citations, in case the website changes between your research and your book's publication. Don't forget to back it all up in case of a hard drive crash.

5. Cite your sources properly. One of the most time-consuming parts of any manuscript preparation is the formatting of footnote, reference, and bibliography citations. Save yourself considerable money and look up how to format this material rather than pay someone hourly to do it for you. Generally, citation information goes in this order: Author, Title, where published, date. Magazines are cited a little differently than books; blogs are done differently than Congressional bills. But even if you don't get the formatting exactly right but include all the relevant information for the editor to put it in the right order (instead of having her look up the sources and generate citations from scratch) you'll save your project time and money. Click here for a helpful resource.

In a bibliography or reference list, citations are organized alphabetically by author last name. Web links might not always have an author listed, so these may be alphabetized by the organization or title of the article cited.

6. Separate resources from references. Resources are for a reader's further exploration on the topics that you've brought up in your book. References are the sources that you actually consulted to make your conclusions or quote your statistics. References are what go in your endnotes or footnotes, not your "for more information" resources.

Your copy editor can serve as somewhat of a fact-checker or gatekeeper for you by flagging a sentence that doesn't sound quite right, but if you have a statistic-heavy book, you may wish to also hire a fact-checker or consider having your copy editor do a fact-checking pass as well as a copyedit, for an additional charge.

Fact-checking, copyediting, and proofreading are all separate jobs, and if you were publishing with a traditional publishing company, they would all be performed by different people, each one focusing on different things and catching different types of things. The more a copy editor needs to change (and the more global the changes), the more of the finer points the proofreader will likely find during her pass. It takes a lot of eyes to get all the details right. Save your project time and money by turning in the cleanest text you can to your copy editor in the first place.