• Maggie Meahl

12 Tips for the Scattered Historical Researcher and Writer



Are you trying to write a thesis, article or book on a historical subject or event? The key to success is obvious: being organized. Sounds easy, but it is not--at least for me--one who is scattered and easily distracted. Technology is a blessing and a curse in our world of studying the past. What do I mean by that? It means that I am an information "junkie" and I go down "Rabbit Holes" every day, just like the experts tell us not to. That is part of the fun, though, and can lead you to important sources of information for your project. But, you have to keep on top of what you find!


Even this is list is a bit scattered. Oh well.......


  1. Create a detailed outline for your project and/or chapter.

  2. Update that detailed outline as you find more sources and jot down in the outline where those sources are to be used.

  3. Use plenty of headings in your writing project that hopefully line up with the outline. Later, remove most of those headings.

  4. Every paragraph MUST have a simple topic sentence that drives it. Ex: Cloth was extremely scarce in 17th century New England.

  5. Create files on your computer in Dropbox or some other cloud.

  6. Use hardcopy files, as well, that correspond to the on-line files.

  7. Every week, you must organize and file the miscellaneous papers that pile onto your desk and in notebooks. File these bits and pieces of information and consider making a grand list of what you have--but only make one list, not a bunch of lists.

  8. Also, make one "To Do" list every week or so. Check off items when done.

  9. Every so often, either move photo sources to Dropbox or at least take an inventory of what is on your phone. You will be surprised as to what you have accumulated that you might have forgotten about.

  10. Always write down the complete source information, preferably in a research log, for the sources you are using to avoid back-tracking. You can make your own research log or use the free template at American Ancestors: https://www.americanancestors.org/education/learning-resources/download

  11. If you are going to an archives, and I highly suggest you do, you MUST do your research before driving to the archives (what they have, how to get it, what their hours are, etc.). Bring pencils, notebooks, food, research logs, perhaps a note-taking template, and your phone to take pictures of documents. Although so much can be accessed now on-line, there is much more in certain archives, especially in the smaller museums and historical societies.

  12. One way to get back into a writing project, if you have to step away for awhile, is to re-read/edit the work you have done so far. That should get you back in the groove!