Secondary Research – What is it? When do I use it?

“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald

Research is an important resource for writers. We have the ability to expand our knowledge and learn much more than we ever thought possible. I discussed primary research in a previous post. This is research that the writer retrieves from people and sources. This may be done in the form of interviews, surveys or simply participating in a casual conversation via a Skype call. 

While all this research is useful, secondary research takes a different approach. This type of research focuses on sources which are available to us right away. We can go to the library or to Google and search for them. These are books, magazines, databases, newspapers, encyclopedias, blogs and much more. While some of these resources require you to pay for its access (some databases, for instance, require you join with a membership), other resources (such as the library) are free of cost because they are paid by local taxes. 

But which type of research is better – primary or secondary? Quite frankly, it all depends on your purpose of writing. If you’re a journalist covering a story about the county fair, primary research would be the best choice. Your research would take place by way of interviews of sources that relate directly to your story. 

On the contrary, if you’re a novelist or a screenplay writer, then more in-depth research may be involved. You can’t simply write a villain without researching their behavior and/or characteristics. It’s necessary to research how the villain will react in any situation. It’s necessary to know how they think and know their mannerisms as well as their physical descriptions bad habits. What do they do on a lazy Friday night? All of this requires secondary research. It may involve reading dozens (or hundreds) of books in a specific genre. 

Additionally, secondary research is generally more thorough. Let’s say you’re interviewing a detective in order to write a lead detective in your mystery novel. The interview would be primary research, due to the fact that it took place in person. Then, you could research the profession more thoroughly by reading detective thrillers or mysteries where protagonists have this profession. This secondary research may help you learn to write not only the protagonist, but also the genre. You can also research videos where detectives have filmed a “a day in the life” videos. These are interesting and very informative. 

While the information is almost always readily available, it may be more challenging to use secondary research. This is because the research in which we use may (or may not) hold an answer to our research question. There are more sources that we have to gather overall, leading it this process being time consuming. We can still ask the six journalistic questions of our research (Who? What? When? Why? Where? How?). But, more than likely, we will have to outline to put all our sources into one location. 

So, we have to compile the research in a way that makes sense to us. Your method may be an outline, but respectfully, this is not the best method for everyone. Maybe you find it useful to write everything on post-it notes, index cards, notebook paper or even your computer.

Start by going through each piece of research, one at a time. Put your research question in clear sight of where you are working; that way you always see it. What can you get out of each piece of research? Organize it in a way that helps you pull information out for your writing. Then, set the research aside. Evaluate what you have at your fingertips so far. Does it answer your research question? If not, go in search of more in-depth information. Yet, if the information provided suits your writing purpose, then you are ready to start writing. 

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