Writing Documentation – Step Two, The Research

In the first post in this series, I talked about the basics of writing research – which are really just the basics of writing. There are lots of “how to write documentation” guides out there, which I will link to in Step Four, The Writing, but even if you’re following an outline/template/guide, writing in a clear, concise style that is easy for people to read and understand while pointing them to where they can find out more about The Thing You Did is a skill. And all skills can be honed and tweaked and improved upon.

But before you can write, before you can even Make the Thing, you need to research.

I do not recommend embarking on projects without doing research first – and yes, this includes scribal (though scribal research can be as minimal as finding an extant Thing to base your work on). Doing research after the fact is difficult, especially if you’re planning or even considering entering it into any sort of judged faire or competition.

Do your research first.

How to research is a whole separate topic, so I’ll keep it short and sweet and limit myself to five things:

  1. Figure out your keywords – what words, terms, etc. are used by people who study and write about the Thing use when they are describing it?
  2. Use search tools like
  3. Once you find one good source, look at the citations and subject headings to “pearl-grow” and find more. If you find a good source in a physical library, look around on the same shelf to find other potentially useful titles.
  4. Remember that your Thing is likely a very narrow topic, and may not justify a whole book. Don’t be afraid to use broader terms, or to sift through larger books to find the information you need.
  5. Don’t forget databases – there’s a lot out there that your local public library (or school, if you’re associated with an institution) pays for access to, and it’s great. Ask your librarian. We’re helpful people!


When I do research, I use pen and paper. When I sit down with a new source, I write the citation for the source at the top of the page. This goes back to what I was taught as a high school student by English teachers, and it’s a habit I’m glad I’ve kept.

The citation style that I’ve used most recently is APA, but MLA is near and dear to my heart as well. Whatever style you choose, be consistent. Don’t use APA for your footnotes/in-text and then MLA for your bibliography. Just don’t. Pick one and stick with it. Purdue University has a great Online Writing Lab (the OWL) that covers both styles.

Then I read through the source, and I highlight passages that stick out to me. This way, I can read the whole thing without having to stop and take notes.

Once I’ve highlighted, I go back and I transcribe the highlighted portions into my notebook, making note of the page number in the margins. I always write exact quotes at this step, because I want to make sure that when I write my documentation, I don’t accidentally plagiarize.

I do this with a bunch of sources, and then I go to an online document management tool, like Evernote or Google Docs, and I start a notebook or file. Inside that, I create a note/document for each aspect of the Thing. I like a web-based tool for this, because it can go wherever I go.

For example, when I was initially researching Tang Dynasty clothing, I had a note for textiles, one for the shirt, the skirt, hair and makeup, shoes, etc. I went through my notebook and transcribed the exact quotes with in-text citations into the tool, but this time grouped by topic.

Why do I read and write twice? Because each time I read and each time I write, I better cement the information into my head. This is the way I’m wired – you might be different. (You’re probably different.) Find what works for you!

Remember the Project Journal I talked about in Step One? It’s also useful as a research journal. Single-subject notebooks from the dollar store work great, or thin binders with some loose leaf pages if you like to print stuff out. My Epic Timey Wimey Garb project Research Notebook is a combination of a single-subject notebook with post-it flags separating centuries and 1” binder with printouts of articles. The beauty of this is that you can easily reference your research notes while doing the Thing, because you’ll also be taking notes on your execution.

Everyone benefits from a different sort of organizational method, so find the thing that works for you. The important thing is to WRITE STUFF DOWN, and write down WHERE IT CAME FROM so you, or someone else can FIND IT AGAIN.


That’s all for now on the logistics of research.

Writing Documentation – Step One, The Basics

Writing Documentation – Step Three, The Execution

Writing Documentation – Step Four, The Writing

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