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Rookie non-fiction authors typically make plenty of mistakes when writing their first books. I sure did back in 2008.
I can summarize a biggie in four simple words: They just start writing. Put differently, they fail to do the necessary pre-writing work. Yep, I’m talking about proper research. It’s unfortunate because, of all the hundreds of things authors need to do, research-related tasks represent some of the most important ones—especially at the start.
Of course, experienced scribes have already learned this lesson. With rare exceptions, such as breaking stories, they dedicate considerable time to the following activities before sitting down to peck away at their manuscripts:
- Conducting interviews.
- Reading academic articles, research reports, case studies, and other books on the topic.
- Performing primary research à la Jay Baer or Josh Bernoff.
- Listening to podcasts.
- Developing frameworks.
- Sussing out the competition, especially if you’re entering a red ocean.
(If you lack the time to do these things and still want to write a quality non-fiction text, you’ll need to find a ghostwriter or a generous, well-compensated writing partner.)
Today, I’ll show you how to use a single tool as the fulcrum of your research and writing process: Notion. Even if you opt not to use it, the following discussion, tips, and questions will help you rethink your approach to gathering the essential ingredients you’ll need for your non-fiction book.
Prior Research Process and Tools
By way of background, my process has evolved over the years. (Stasis and I typically don’t get along too well.)
In 2013, I began using a separate app (Pocket) to clip articles and blog posts for my books, often from the RSS reader Feedly. I also saved intriguing PDFs, datasets, and images into separate Dropbox folders with organized subfolders. Ultimately, much of that content would find its way into spreadsheets and Word or Google documents.
To be sure, that’s a lot of tech, and those were just the research-oriented tools. Other parts of what some call the tech stack included:
- Todoist to manage the project.
- Canva to create figures, although the designers would take them to the next level.
- Slack, Zoom, and Calendly for easy communication.
- Google Forms to collect book blurbs in an organized Sheet.
- Other websites and programs that served discrete purposes, such as MyBib for endnotes PDFpen for efficient text extraction.
This begs the question: Did my admittedly tech-heavy process work?
Sure. It yielded 11 books. To steal a line from Jodi Foster in True Detective, though, that was the wrong question. The better one: Was there significant room for improvement?
The clear answer was yes.
The Ultimate Ingestion Engine: How Notion Databases Changed Everything
For starters, some of my tools overlapped, and I spent a good deal of time toggling among different ones. Sometimes, I’d forget if I linked to a PDF in a Word doc or stored a downloaded copy of it on Dropbox. Did an interviewee email me, DM me in Slack, or share a Google document with me? You get the idea. In my defense, I was unaware of a single app or program that would let me consolidate and simplify my research efforts.
And then I stumbled upon Notion, the aspiring magnet tool. A lightbulb went off. After some experimentation, I went all-in on it. Notion transformed how I work in general, but I’ll focus below on my new research process,
Saying adios to Pocket was a no-brainer for two reasons. First, and as you’ll see below, Notion makes it obsolete. The former is a far more robust, multi-purpose, and collaborative tool offering myriad benefits. Second, Pocket sucks now. Damn shame. Many Pocket customers have flocked to Readwise, but I digress.
Arrivederci to Google Sheets as well.1 Now, when find an interesting article, I just clip it from my browser into a Notion database. (Yes, you can do this on any device.) Here’s a screenshot of some links that I’ve saved for a recent writing project:
What is the fulcrum of your research?
Note how the structured nature of the database allows easy sorting and filtering. (As I’ve said many times before, structured data is a beautiful thing.) And here’s where the magic happens.
Want to know the sources added in the past week? No worries. Need to see the articles that you haven’t reviewed yet? Easy peasy. What’s more, you can customize the database by adding different fields—technically called properties in Notionland. If you’ve ever noodled with Excel filters, you’ll be able to quickly figure it out. Want to view the content more visually on a Kanban board? Knock yourself out.
Looking Forward: Leveling Up via AI
On forthcoming projects, I plan on using the recently released Notion Q&A with Racket clients. Once you’ve aggregated oodles of content in a Notion workspace, the AI-powered feature makes it easier to collate it and—as its name implies—ask and answer all sorts of interesting questions. Returning to the database above, in theory, Q&A will be able to:
- Quickly summarize vast quantities of information.
- Save time trying to manually locate pieces of information.
- Find patterns and discover hidden insights.
- Suggest supplemental articles, much like what Feedly’s doing with AI these days.
I could keep going, but you get my point.
What You Need to Know
Remember two things. First, while you are probably excited to start the writing process in earnest, pooh-pooh the import of dedicated research time at your own peril. Constantly expecting to MacGyver your way out of problems the fly is a recipe for rework, incoherent manuscripts, and other disasters. (Cue Eisenhower quote.)
Second, there are myriad ways to gather the ingredients for your book. Some tools are better than others, but none is perfect. Despite its warts, I prefer Notion. Perhaps you’re a fan of Coda or a similar no-code app. Regardless of which one you use, it’s imperative to consistently use it. A slapdash approach will only hinder your progess and, in the end, the final product.
- Even those book blurbs now fly into Notion thanks to Simple.ink.