nonfiction research

How to Research a Nonfiction Book: 5 Tips for Writers

13 Feb 2024 Nonfiction

That you’ve landed here tells me you have a message you want to share in a book.

You’re eager to start writing, but you first need to conduct some research.

Problem is, you’re not sure how to research for a nonfiction book.

You may even wonder whether research is all that important.

You may be an excellent writer, but even a small factual mistake can cost you the credibility of your readers.

Over the last half-century, I’ve written over 200 books, 21 of them New York Times bestsellers. So I ought to be able to write a book on my area of expertise — writing and publishing — based on my experience alone, right?


I wouldn’t dare write such a book without carefully researching every detail. Because if I get one fact wrong, my credibility goes out the window. And I’d have only my own laziness to blame.

Thorough research can set your book — your message — apart from the competition.

As you research, carefully determine:

  • How much detail should go into your book
  • Whether even if it’s interesting, is it relevant?
  • To remain objective and not skew the results to favor your opinions
  • To use research as seasoning rather than the main course (your message)

As you weave in your findings, always think reader-first. This is the golden rule of writing.

Your job is to communicate so compellingly that readers are captivated from the get-go. This is as important to how-to manuals and self-help books as it is to a memoir.

5 Tips for Researching Your Nonfiction Book

1. Start With an Outline

While the half or so population of novelists who call themselves Pantsers (like me), who write by the seat of their pants as a process of discovery, can get away without an outline, such is not true of nonfiction authors.

There is no substitute for an outline if you’re writing nonfiction.

Once you’ve determined what you’d like to say and to whom you want to say it, it’s time to start building your outline.

Not only do agents and acquisitions editors require this, but also you can’t draft a proposal without an outline.

Plus, an outline will keep you on track when the writing gets tough. Best of all, it can serve as your research guide to keep you focused on finding what you really need for your project.

That said, don’t become a slave to your outline. If in the process of writing you find you need the flexibility to add or subtract something from your manuscript, adjust your outline to accommodate it.

The key, again, is reader-first, and that means the best final product you can create.

Read my blog post How to Outline a Nonfiction Book in 5 Steps for a more in depth look at the outlining process.

2. Employ a Story Structure

Yes, even for nonfiction, and not only for memoirs or biographies.

I recommend the novel structure below for fiction, but — believe it or not — with only slight adaptations, roughly the same structure can turn mediocre nonfiction to something special.

While in a novel (and in biographical nonfiction), the main character experiences all these steps, they can also apply to self-help and how-to books.

Just be sure to sequence your points and evidence to promise a significant payoff, then be sure to deliver.

nonfiction research

You or your subject becomes the main character in a memoir or a biography. Craft a sequence of life events the way a novelist would, and your true story can read like fiction.

Even a straightforward how-to or self-help book can follow this structure as you make promises early, triggering readers to anticipate fresh ideas, secrets, inside information — things you pay off in the end.

While you may not have as much action or dialogue or character development as your novelist counterpart, your crises and tension can come from showing where people have failed before and how you’re going to ensure your readers will succeed.

You might even make a how-to project look impossible until you pay off that setup with your unique solution.

Once you’ve mapped out your story structure, determine:

  • What parts of my book need more evidence?
  • Would another point of view lend credibility?
  • What experts do I need to interview?

3. Research Your Genre

I say often that writers are readers.

Good writers are good readers.

Great writers are great readers.

Learn the conventions and expectations of your genre by reading as many books as you can get your hands on. That means dozens and dozens to learn what works, what doesn’t, and how to make your nonfiction book the best it can be.

4. Use the Right Research Tools

Don’t limit yourself to a single research source. Instead, consult a range of sources.

For a memoir or biography, brush up on the geography and time period of where your story took place. Don’t depend on your memory alone, because if you get a detail wrong, some readers are sure to know.

So, what sources?


There’s no substitute for an in-person interview with an expert. People love to talk about their work, and about themselves.

How do you land an appointment with an expert? Just ask. You’d be surprised how accessible and helpful most people are.

Be respectful of their time, and of course, promise to credit them on your Acknowledgments page.

Before you meet, learn as much as you can about them online so you don’t waste their time asking questions you could’ve easily answered another way.

Ask deep, fresh, personal questions unique to your subject. Plan ahead, but also allow the conversation to unfold naturally as you listen and respond with additional questions.

Most importantly, record every interview and transcribe it — or have it transcribed — for easy reference as you write.

World Almanacs

Online versions save you time and include just about anything you would need: facts, data, government information, and more. Some are free, some require a subscription. Try the free version first to be sure you’ll benefit from this source.


On, you’ll find nearly limitless information about any continent, country, region, city, town, or village.

Names, time zones, monetary units, weather patterns, tourism info, data on natural resources, and even facts you wouldn’t have thought to search for.

I get ideas when I’m digging here, for both my novels and my nonfiction books.


If you don’t own a set, you can access one at a library or online. Encyclopedia Britannica has just about anything you’d need.


Here, you can learn a ton about people, places, addictions, hobbies, neuroses — you name it. (Just be careful to avoid getting drawn into clickbait videos.)

Search Engines

Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, and the like have become the most powerful book research tools of all — the internet has revolutionized my research.

Type in any number of research terms and you’ll find literally (and I don’t say that lightly) millions of resources.

That gives you plenty of opportunity to confirm and corroborate anything you find by comparing it to at least 2 or 3 additional sources.


The Merriam Webster online thesaurus is great, because it’s lightning fast. You couldn’t turn the pages of a hard copy as quickly as you can get where you need to onscreen.

One caution: Never let it be obvious you’ve consulted a thesaurus. Too many writers use them to search for an exotic word to spice up their prose.

Don’t. Rather, look for that normal word that was on the tip of your tongue. Just say what you need to say.

Use powerful nouns and verbs, not fancy adjectives and adverbs.

Wolfram Alpha

View this website as the genius librarian who can immediately answer almost any question.

Google Scholar

This website offers high quality, in depth academic information that far exceeds any regular search engine.

Library of Congress

A rich source of American history that allows you to view photos, other media, and ask a librarian for help if necessary.

Your Local Library

The convenience of the internet has caused too many to abandon their local library. But that’s a mistake. Many local libraries offer all sorts of hands-on tools to enhance your research effort.

Evaluating your sources

When researching your nonfiction book, be aware that not all sources are equal, especially online.

Bias and misinformation run rampant, making it hard to distinguish between fact and misinformation.

Simply Googling your topic can lead to an array of conflicting sources with varying messages.

Be judicious by comparing with other sources what you’ve gleaned so you can determine the most prevalent and plausible result.

Primary vs. secondary sources

First-hand accounts from witnesses to or participants in an event or with full knowledge of an area of discipline are ideal. Live or online interviews, autobiographies, diaries, original documents, data reports, video/photographs/audio, etc., are best as primary sources 

Secondary sources are comprised of interpretations of, commentary on, or conjecture related to primary sources. Examples: books, analysis of data, scholarly articles, and documentaries.

Source Evaluation Checklist 

1. How new is the information?

Relevancy is important.

If your research results in contradictory information because some sources are old, it might make sense to cite both the old and the new in your book to show how things have evolved. But also be careful not to assume the latest information is more reliable. If it’s merely trendy, it might soon become obsolete.

2. Who’s the intended audience?

Consider the intended audience of the source itself. 

Is the material meant to educate? Entertain? Is it an overview or is it someone’s thesis?

3. Is the source really an expert?

What do their reputation and credentials say about them? How long have they studied their discipline? Do other experts back their views?

4. Can you verify the source?

Trustworthy sources don’t exist in vacuums.

Do your due diligence to be sure your source is generally accepted and trusted. Are they associated with a well-known institution or are they board-certified in their area of expertise? Are they quoted by fellow experts?

5. Who published the source?

Take into consideration any bias on the part of the source that may affect their trustworthiness.

In the 1950s, before it was widely accepted that smoking was harmful, tobacco companies funded research to counter mounting scientific evidence that cigarettes were linked to serious health problems.

So look beyond the author of your source and investigate who funded and published it.

The bias may not be as obvious as misrepresenting the health effects of tobacco, but it will affect the credibility of the information.

5. Avoid Procrastination: Set a Deadline

At first glance, researching for your nonfiction book may sound like homework, but it can be fun. So fun it can be addicting — the more we learn, the more we tend to want to know.

Many writers use research as an excuse to procrastinate from writing.

To avoid this, set a firm deadline for your research, and get to your writing. If you need further research, you can always take a break and conduct it.

Time to Get Started

There’s no substitute for meticulous research and the richness it lends to your nonfiction writing. The trust it builds with readers alone is worth the effort.

Start with your outline, and before you know it, you’ll be immersed in research and ready to begin writing.

I can’t wait to see what you come up with!