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Where Do You Start Reading?

In my previous post I talked about the sequence that I go through in writing a trade book for general readers.  I must admit, I’ve never systematically thought through that sequence until yesterday!  I just have a way of working, and when I thought about what that was, I realized it was this sequence.  1. Doing basic research/reading/and outlining; 2. Writing a prospectus for the publisher; 3. Reading massively; 4. Outlining the book; 5. Writing it; 6.  Revising it.   I will describe how I go about doing each of these steps in the following posts.

The first question is this: if one needs to do some basic research and reading, leading to a basic outline, as the first step – how does one decide what to read?     That’s an especially acute question if you want to be working in a field that you are not overly familiar with, as was my case when I wanted this past March to start reading about “memory” – both from psychological perspectives (especially cognitive psychology) and social (“collective” memory).   I had only vague ideas about these areas.   So how do I know where to start?

It occurs to me that this may be a question readers of the blog frequently have themselves – not because they want to write books necessarily, but because they want simply to be well informed, or to *get* well-informed, about some field of scholarly inquiry that they are interested in but not well versed in.   How do you know where to start begin reading so as to get a good sense of what the best scholars have to say?

Scholars have their own ways of doing such things, but let me tell you my preferred mode, as I think it could be of general use to others.   My approach is NOT to ….


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How Do You Know What To Write About?
Writing a Trade Book



  1. BrianUlrich  September 4, 2014

    When e-mailing an expert, it is usually a good idea to have a specific question in mind that can be answered briefly. Requests for reading ideas should usually go over well, especially when coupled with a bit about why you want to read them.

    Observe the following exchange, and comments: http://www.historiann.com/2010/01/25/we-get-letters-some-we-can-do-without/

    • BrianUlrich  September 4, 2014

      Though I should add that (most) academics do want to be helpful, and are happy to answer questions. It is just a matter of standing out from the “Can you tell me about Broad Topic?” some people get a lot of. One thing that might matter, Bart’s generosity notwithstanding, is that instead of e-mailing Famous Scholar, look for a less famous scholar who is a specialist in exactly what you want. I’m not sure if the Bible scholars professional organization has a publicly available database of their expertise, but that would be a place to start.

  2. shakespeare66  September 4, 2014

    Thanks so much for doing this about your process. I find it quite interesting! I used to emphasize to my students that it is important to read someone who has ‘authority” ( I explained what I meant by authority) and not just any Joe Blow. I also taught that students use some sort of sequence when writing a paper, and that it was not an iron clad process, but one that they needed to discover during the writing of several papers. I taught the writing process with several steps in the process. Reading also required a process, and one I am assuming you will cover in the next few posts. Very good to have you do this. It is a great lesson for those who want to write their own book. Thanks so much.

  3. jgranade  September 5, 2014


    For what it’s worth, my Master’s Degree was in Applied Cognition and Development/Educational Psychology, and I would recommend the works of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger dealing with sociocultural/situative theories of cognition and learning, such as Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (1991) and Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (1998).

  4. magpie  September 5, 2014

    Sounds like a good approach. I think that I would also prevail on academic colleagues in the appropriate fields and get their input on the most current research. By the time a book is written in the cognitive neuroscience/psychology fields the bibliography may be a bit out of date. Get the background reading but then update it with professional journals, conference reports, etc. Should be a fascinating read! Probably giving you unneeded advice, but I work in the medical field and a book that is five years old is out of date. I do enjoy reading about your research methods, wish I had your dedication and intellect!

  5. RonaldTaska  September 5, 2014

    Wow again!

  6. Adam0685  September 5, 2014

    An idea for a future series. In past posts you’ve touched on this a bit and talked about how you got into teaching. It would be interesting to hear about what its like teaching religion at a public institution and things such as how you teach, why you teach, your teaching philosophy, who you teach, the challenges of teaching, the best thing about teaching, who has served as a model for you as a teacher, etc.

  7. gabilaranjeira  September 6, 2014

    This post reminds me of when I was, quite erratically, trying to start studying Christianity. I had no clue where to start, I just knew I needed to find a reputable and reliable source of information. Coincidently, right about that time, the TV was on at my house one day and from the distance I heard you speak (on the history channel) about the apocryphal writings. You spoke in a very succinct and efficient manner, so I walked quickly towards the TV just to write down your name – Dr. Bart Ehrman. This time, goggle helped. I googled you and found out that you were precisely what I was looking for. Then I found out you are funny. Perfect, I’ve been living happily ever after!

  8. walstrom  September 7, 2014

    Among those who graduate from theological studies (such as your students) who have had the “veil lifted” of
    a naive view of supernatural perfection regarding scripture–what do you see as their future in possible employment and livelihood as pastors in mainstream (41,000 denomination) Christian churches?
    In the course of selling and buying Theology textbooks at a bookstore where I worked, I encountered more than a few extraordinarily bright graduates who were only able to secure a job offer if they signed a document, in effect, saying they would NEVER teach “faith-destroying” subjects such as . . . ” In other words, facts. Is this common?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 8, 2014

      I don’t teach theology, so I’m not really sure. My graduate students do not go into church ministry, but into teaching, most often in secular contexts.

  9. rjbase89  September 10, 2014

    Really good article. I have an interest in maybe writing some day and have often wondered about the methods used to research a topic. Research done by simply reading other books always seemed like a method that would just perpetuate errors. This idea of the in-depth mining of the bibliographies seems an excellent approach. I certainly would be interested in anything you have say about your methods for writing.
    As an aside, in few of your Teaching Company lectures you stated that the titles given to the four gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) were second century additions to documents that were written anonymously. Since we don’t have anything even close to the original copies, how do we know this? How do we know that these titles, some or all of them, were not circulating with the oral traditions from which the gospel accounts were drawn? Thanks and great work you are doing. BC

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 10, 2014

      It’s a great question: maybe I’ll devote a post to it, as it’s really pretty complicated….

    • rjbase89  September 10, 2014

      Thanks. I really need to see that post. I have a lot of questions from your Teaching Company and other lectures. I am sure others must also. Your site could use a forum devoted just to that issue. By the way, I can’t believe that I
      am communicating with Bart Ehrman. This is pretty cool. Thanks again. BC

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