I have long respected the work of Dr. Craig Blomberg (Denver Seminary). He has written outstanding commentaries on Matthew, 1 Corinthians, and James. He has also penned a number of textbooks and thematic works that bring biblical scholarship to the church. He has gracious answered my questions about his way of doing research.
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?
It all depends on the project. Most of what I’ve done over the years has come either at someone else’s invitation or been my desire to write something where I have sought approval for the project, and an outlet for it—a conference paper, journal article, book, etc. Except for some journal articles, this has required having an abstract, set of chapter outlines, or some big picture before starting my work. Then my goal is to break it down into as many reasonably discrete subsections as possible to make the work manageable. Usually I research a section at a time unless there is a lot of overlap, in which case you inevitably have material that can be used in more than one place.
- What kind of notes do you take (ideas, quotes, etc.)? How do you organize them?
When I was doing my doctoral research in a pre-internet age, I did the old-fashioned approach of hundreds of note cards with information categorized, documented and organized card-by-card. When I did shorter projects, I would write down all the information I wanted from one source on one or more sheets of notebook-sized paper, which gave me the ability to literally cut and paste as well as shuffle all the pieces of paper in many different sequences. With the advent of the digital world, I just transferred that material to computer files. Some were topical, so I would put all the information on a given topic from a variety of sources in one file or, if I was relying on a source heavily, all of the information just from that one source in one file. But if I realized I really wanted to use a lot of information from a journal article or book chapter, I would photocopy it and highlight it or underline things, or scribble notes in the margin. The same was true of books. As I built my library, I would just highlight and write in the margins of books I owned, which I could go back and re-discover as I needed to. Often I would determine which new books to buy based on whether it appeared I would want to use them a lot for certain writing projecgts.
- What kind of tools do you use for researching and collecting information? (software? Do you store notes in Endnote? Dropbox? Evernote? Filing cabinet?)
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received my first year of Ph.D. work was to buy a subscription to New Testament Abstracts and read it cover to cover each time a fascicle appears (three times a year). Even though the plot is rather slow (!), I then devised a system of filing cards on New Testament books—with articles or books on introduction, theology, literary criticism, sociology and various other specialized topics, along with note cards on every chapter in each book. I also then created separate alphabetized cards on topics of NT criticism, topics of NT theology, and everything leftover (NT general). I identified the most important journals and publishers whose works I would virtually always index for myself and a second tier of sources that I would record if they published articles on certain topics of particular interest to me. By the time personal computers became commonplace, I wanted to transfer all this to digital form, but my note cards had become so numerous and so crammed with information in handwriting that only I could consistently decipher that even when one friend and adjunct colleague offered to transcribe everything for me into digital form, she gave up after a couple of weeks and conceded that it was hopeless project. Only I could do it, and I had neither the time nor the patience to do it. So to this day, three times a year, handwritten additions are made to my note card files! Of course today there are countless detailed on-line bibliographies, including those available by accessing and searching major databases that libraries subscribe to. The problem I find with most of them now is that they are too voluminous, so my select indexing remains very helpful for me.
- 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?
Write drafts of things sooner rather than later. Then go back and figure out where the holes are, what you are more vs. less confident about out of what you wrote and you will do less research and it will be more focused and useful. Perfectionist that I was, when I was younger I would read voluminously, take copious notes, and end up with ¾ of the material not being relevant to what I was doing. Now I read just enough to be able to write a first draft of a chapter or an article, without stopping to footnote anything and interrupt my train of thought. The bulk of my research sometimes comes after that first draft. The footnotes come at the end. I will usually spend more time in research and revision after my first draft than before it. But the sum total of time I spend overall is still dramatically less than it used to be because I have a much clearer sense of what I’m looking for and, however interesting, tangential or semi-related something is to what I’m writing, if it’s not directly relevant I skip it.