06 Mar 2024

A Method for Doing Research

It is well known that to do a serious study you have to read a lot. But what is less well known is that the act of reading is complex and involves several different activities. One of those activities involves coming up with a unified understanding of an object, based on the explanations contained in several books. This alone is not an easy task, since it is difficult to hold in our mind the content and arguments from the book we are currently reading and all the others we have already read.

Luckily, the research guides and manuals propose some standard techniques to help students overcome this problem, and recent developments in software made those techniques even more accessible. If you apply the right combination of structure to your research, along with good computerized methods, you will become much more capable of handling the amount of information required for serious reading. Once you have a method for the operational parts of your intellectual production, you will experience less friction in finding the answers to your questions.

I am going to describe the method that I have been working on to cope with the information overload during a research project. You can either use it directly on your studies, or adapt it according to your needs. The software that I used during the article is Cahier, which I developed to support this work method, but you can use a combination of other software to achieve a similar workflow.

Assess your subject

The first thing I do when I become interested in a problem is to write a general evaluation of it. This evaluation is used to mobilize all the previous knowledge that I have about the subject and to provide working hypotheses that guide me in the collection of sources and insights about the subject.

To achieve this, I create a document where I write down the questions that I want to solve, headings for what I imagine to be the major divisions of the subject, along with my personal opinions. For example, if I were writing about logic, I would write a document like the one below, with four questions, three headings, and four claims.

At this point, the claims that I write down are not complete paragraphs or outlines. I find that complete paragraphs take too much time to polish, and that outlines force a rigid structure too early in the process. So I resort to a string of key sentences that have the same structure as topic sentences. They must be short, yet descriptive enough to contain a complete thought and to provide the material needed for an expanded paragraph later on. They are like seeds that may or may not grow to become an integral part of my future work.

This initial draft plays an important role in the next steps since it provides the structure that holds together our research findings.

Start reading

Now I collect books, essays, and lectures that might contribute new insights or theories to my study, and I record the information for every one of those sources. Besides registering the usual metadata for those (title, author, URLs, etc.), it is of particular importance to note the date of the first publication of the book. This way you will have a better appreciation for when that particular work started exerting its influence and the people who might have read it.

After that, I start reading and highlighting any passage that advances substantially my understanding of the issue. Then, instead of leaving that highlight buried inside my books or documents, I associate that highlight with a key sentence in the initial draft. If the information or insight is completely new, I instead write an additional key sentence that summarizes it in my own words and associate the highlight with it. On Cahier, I turn the key sentences into collapsible panels that can store the highlight cards as children and that can show how many highlights there are, but in other software, a collapsible outline or a similar structure should suffice. The draft becomes the document that stores the knowledge shared across the several books.

When you associate a highlight with a key sentence, you are saying that it supports or develops the idea contained in the sentence. Since the highlight also contains the reference to the source where you extracted it, it can: display the metadata about that reference (title, author, publication date, etc.), and easily navigate to the page that was highlighted.

This is what my draft looks like at this point. I have four key sentences, with the evidence for the first sentence expanded. This first sentence contains my initial definition of logic, that was inspired by two different books, one published in 1918 and the other in 1884. In my next study session, it will be very useful to add another definition from a modern book to compare the older and newer definitions, and maybe sharpen my sentence.


The headings and sentences you created at the beginning function as working hypotheses. So it is expected and desired that your understanding will change, and you will want that to reflect on your draft. So you should rewrite, reorder, split, or merge key sentences and headings. When you find a new piece of evidence for a sentence, you might want to rewrite it because you found a better way to express that thought. Or you may realize that your categories are mistaken and you should rearrange your sentences.

What is effective about the string of sentences is that you can reflect on the structure of your thinking at a higher level, without getting caught up with details. You will be able to see more effectively which ideas are underdeveloped, what are the gaps in your understanding, and what is the logical progression of your thinking. This way it is also easy to manipulate and move sentences around in the document.

But keep in mind that this step is all about your thinking. The operations and structure we just described exist to support higher-level thinking, not to take its place. So you have to complement this work method with the techniques compatible with the object of your study. Those techniques are what should guide the changes in your document so that you are not doing clerk work with no analysis.

Finishing up

Once the draft is complete, you might want to turn your research findings into an essay, an article, or a lecture, depending on why you started the research project. When I need to do this, I copy my draft into the word processor and start fleshing out the key sentences into full paragraphs, with the transitions and formalities of the format I am writing in. But if you will not produce any content from your research, you can also store it as a note for future reference.

In any case, when you read about a new subject in the future for which you have already written a note, you should open the note and reapply the process described here. This will enable you to read the new source while having at hand the study you did previously. You can then compare the opinion of the new author against your own and against the opinions of other authors that you thought were worth recording.


The draft that you have just produced contains your ideas on a specific subject, supported and developed by evidence from several sources. It is an effective tool for reflection because you can efficiently compare the claims of various authors to your own. This is the foundation of any serious study.

While I focused here on the material operations involved in a study, you should at every step evaluate, reflect, and ultimately make sure that you grow your understanding of your problem. Higher-level thinking is what matters the most when generating great ideas that you will turn into your intellectual production. But this alone is not enough, because what distinguishes a great researcher is having the skill to navigate both the methodological and the material requirements of a study.