I am starting a new series on Crux Sola called “How I Do Research.” Basically, I am asking prolific scholars how they have learned the art of doing research. Up first is my buddy Michael F. Bird, author of many excellent books including Evangelical Theology, The Saving Righteousness of God, and a new commentary on Romans coming out very soon!
Question #1: How do you approach research as a whole? Do you have a big-picture strategy? Do your research all at once, and then write? Do you do some sketching and reflecting on paper and then dig into research? Do you go back and forth?
The magic of research happens in a number of ways. My main modus operandi is to be like a sculptor working on three or four sculptures at once where I take time to chip away at each one. I tend to compartmentalize my time fairly well. Friday is my main research day for my primary research project and I try to spend a couple of hours on some weekday evenings on it (currently a NT Introduction) and Sunday night is my minor research time where I spend a few hours on something (currently a series of essays on Paul). I try to do some reading on Friday evenings, mainly reviews for my blog, and get a couple of hours during the work week, but – and this is the important thing – I’m always taking notes and compiling a database of quotes, summaries, and bibliographies.
In terms of writing process, I like to briefly read into a subject, write what I think, then go back a read a lot more and then edit, augment, and correct after that.
Question #2: What kind of notes do you take (ideas, quotes, etc.)? How do you organize them?
I mainly have a series of Word.docs where I store my info in documents on Gospels, Paul, NT Theology, NT Background, Hermeneutics-Greek-Textual Criticism-Canon, etc. I did start to use Evernote, but could never really get into it.
Question #3: What kind of tools do you use for researching and collecting information? (software? Do you store notes in Endnote? Dropbox? Evernote? Filing cabinet?)
I back-up stuff in Dropbox (praise God) and I’m hoping to make use of Zotero to create bibliographies in the future.
Question #4: What have you learned about doing research, collecting notes, and the process of writing throughout your career – put another way, if you could get into a time machine and go back twenty years (or ten years), what advice would you want to give to your younger self about the process of research and how you take notes and read scholarship?
I’ve learned from students and colleagues that there is no one way to do research. Everybody is different. Some like lots of technology, heck, some people still use index cards! Some read, read, and read and then write, others like to read-write-read-edit-read-edit-edit.
The main thing is to make sure you are working on projects that are valuable and worthwhile for your career progression, making a contribution to the academy, provide resources for students, or providing study tools for the church.