(Excerpt from my new book “Write a Book!”. Get the whole book for free (this week only!) at Amazon.com.)

In the research phase, learn as much as you can about your subject. Talk with people, read books and articles, and think about the topic.

  • Go to a research library, look up your topic, and see what you can learn.
  • You can also look at college textbooks.
  • Go to major bookstores and Amazon to buy the leading books on your topic. I generally buy 15-25 books for each book I write.
  • Use the web. Read about your topic in Wikipedia. Look at blogs, articles, white papers, PDFs, and so on.
  • Interview people who have experience and knowledge of your topic. Meet them for coffee or lunch. Ask a few general questions and let them talk. They will point out many things that you didn’t think about.
  • Many ideas will occur to you when you’re walking the dog. When ideas come up, write them down immediately or you’ll forget.

Don’t worry about organization or direction at this point. Write down everything. It’s much better to have too many ideas than too few.

Carry a notepad with you all the time so you can jot down ideas. You can use Evernote or Google Docs on your cell phone. You can also send text messages to yourself. Use whatever works for you.

You’ll end up with a squirrel’s nest of ideas and notes on napkins, receipts, the back of uncancelled checks, sticky notes, text files, emails, and SMS messages. Collect all of this into one file with an item on each line.

Research Your Audience and their Interests

What does your audience really want to know? What are your audience’s problems? What are their motivations? There are several ways to do this:

  • Look at question-and-answer sites where people ask questions and others answer. Questions are sorted by categories, so you can find a large pool of questions to see what people are thinking about. Q/A sites include Yahoo! Answers (answers.yahoo.com), AllExperts, theanswerbank.co.uk, and Quora.
  • Search in Twitter. You can search for keywords or hashtags. Scroll back six months, copy all of the postings, and review those.
  • Collect questions from your sales and support team. They know customers’ “top ten common questions.”
  • Put a prominent “Ask us a question” box at your website and collect the questions.
  • Look at the blogs and Twitter feeds of experts and influencers.
  • Look at your own blog. Look at your readers’ comments to see what they find interesting.
  • Look at your website’s search box. If configured correctly, your web analytics can give you a list of queries.

For example, when I was writing the book on content marketing, I searched for “content marketing” at a large question-and-answer site and found 384 questions. 41 questions were useful for the book.

Some tools let you visualize what influencers are saying. For example, here is a word cloud of the discussion among computer network administrators:

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Figure 2: You can use tools to see discussions among influencers. These combine the conversation, find the most frequent words, and create a visual display to show you what the community is talking about. In this example, you can see that security and malware are significant topics.

You can also use Wordle to create word clouds of blogs. Here’s a word cloud of my blog:

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Figure 3: You can create a word cloud of someone’s blog or tweets to see what they write about.

How to Make a Tweet Cloud

You can make a tweet cloud in a few steps (it’s easy):

  • Go to a person’s tweets
  • Scroll down perhaps to six months of tweets or get a few hundred tweets
  • Click at the end, hold down Shift, go to the top, click to select all, and copy the tweets
  • Go to a text editor such as Notepad or EditPlus and paste the tweets
  • Go to Wordle.net, click Create, and in the blank box, paste the tweets
  • Wordle turns the tweets into a word cloud. However, some words will be large because they’re repeated often, such as the person’s name, his Twitter ID, or the names of months. Go back to the text editor and use Search/Replace All to get rid of those. Copy the result and post it to Wordle again. Repeat this a few times until you get a useful result.

Get the Whole Book for Free

Want the rest of the book? Get my book for free (this week only!) at Amazon.com.