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Table of Contents

This post is the third installment in our series aimed at specialist bloggers. In the past two installments, I’ve talked about choosing topics and editing. Today, we’ll be looking at research. This can be a daunting prospect for a lot of creators. Many people have told me they never did open-ended research projects when they were in school. In many cases, they worked with curated lists of sources provided by their instructors. But when they have to scope out sources entirely on their own, they feel more than a little unprepared. Hopefully, by explaining my research process, I can make it a lot less mystifying and intimidating. 

Who am I? 

I blog about the British constitution over at A Venerable Puzzle. I started my blog because I noticed that many popular discussions of constitutional subjects relied on oversimplifications. To be fair, the British constitution is a labyrinthine entity that’s made up of a diverse assortment of statutes, conventions, and precedents, many of which are subject to a bewildering array of caveats and qualifications. 

Research is a journey

Research has always been at the forefront of my blog. From the beginning, I’ve always striven to draw on a wide variety of sources to help my readers understand constitutional issues in all their byzantine glory. But deciding which sources to use is an art rather than a science. In graduate school, I learned to break the process down into discrete steps. I find this makes the whole task a lot less intimidating.  

The journey usually looks like this:

  1. Decide which questions I want to ask.
  2. Map out my journey by consulting secondary sources.
  3. Dive deeper by exploring primary sources.
  4. Review what I’ve learned.

To provide context, I’ll be using actual examples based on my recent experiences writing a piece about the appointment of bishops in pre-Reformation England.

Planning the journey: asking questions

The first step of the process involves figuring out the story you want to tell. It may seem odd to frame this in terms of storytelling when I write non-fiction, but it’s still a helpful approach (for more information on using storytelling, check out “How to use storytelling to lend authenticity to your content” by Jose). 

With my piece on the appointment of bishops, these are some of the questions I started with:

  • How did the Appointment of Bishops Act 1533 affect the process of choosing bishops? 
  • How did the process codified by the Henrician statute differ from the one used prior to the Reformation? 
  • What role did the Pope play in the process, and how did the Crown interact with the papacy?
  • Was the pre-Reformation process affected by the Statute of Provisors? 

I also decided that I would confine my survey of the pre-Reformation process to the period between 1214 (when King John issued a charter confirming the Church’s right to hold free elections) and 1533 when Parliament finally removed the Pope from the process and gave the Crown the decisive say over the selection of bishops.

Mapping the journey: secondary sources

Secondary sources are those which have been written by people who usually lack firsthand knowledge of their subject, and it often draws on a range of sources. Monographs and journal articles written by academics are good examples of secondary sources. It may seem odd to start with secondary sources, but they have the benefit of being readily accessible. Reading neatly printed modern prose is far less of a headache than trying to decipher the scrawl of some Chancery clerk! 

I like to think of secondary sources as a map. They show me what other scholars have been saying, rightly or wrongly, about a subject. They can also point me toward specific primary sources that I can use during the next stage of the process, though these references are often tucked away in the footnotes or the bibliography. 

For my piece on episcopal appointments, I noticed that a lot of secondary sources downplayed the impact of the Appointment of Bishops Act 1533, arguing that the Crown had always played a decisive role in choosing bishops and so the Henrician statute was simply an exercise in dotting i’s and crossing t’s. 

Luckily, I found a wonderfully comprehensive monograph from 2015 that let me see the situation in an entirely new light. The author demonstrated that, while kings had sought to influence the choice of bishops for centuries, they weren’t assured of getting their way. This was a eureka moment for me because it highlighted a weakness with the traditional narrative. Rather than being the undisputed masters of the appointment process, medieval kings were just one of several stakeholders, and it wasn’t uncommon for their wishes to be thwarted. That realization helped me frame my story.

Exploring the journey: primary sources

The next stage of the process involves consulting primary sources. These are materials written by people with firsthand experience of the subject matter–think things like diaries or correspondence. 

When I was in grad school, consulting primary sources was often a challenge. If I was lucky, I could use sources that had been collected and edited into a nice, published volume. If I was unlucky, I’d have to consult barely legible microfiche images or go to an archive to dig out the material myself. 

The Internet has made things a lot easier. Many editions of primary sources published by 18th- and 19th-century antiquarians are available through sites like Google Books. Despite their age, they can still be quite valuable. Archives are also working to make more and more material available to everyone online. For example, the York’s Archbishops’ Registers Project is working to digitize the registers of every Archbishop of York from the 1200s to the 1600s. An archbishop’s register is an official record of his official acts, and since archbishops during this period were often temporal magnates as well as churchmen, their registers can be a goldmine of information about everything from religion to the economy. 

While it’s great that so much material has been made accessible, actually using it can still be challenging without specialist knowledge. In the case of the archbishops’ registers, you’ll need to have a working knowledge of medieval Latin and medieval paleography (i.e., the study of medieval writing systems) to make sense of them. The sheer volume of material can also be a challenge. It’s not always well-indexed,  so it can often feel like you’re searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.  

With my piece on bishops, I was confronted by the fact that a comprehensive trawl through the primary sources simply wasn’t practical or even possible. Dozens of bishops were appointed during the period in question, and each case produced voluminous documentation, much of which was highly formulaic and would only be interesting to the diehard enthusiasts in my audience. In the end, I ended up consulting English statutes, letters written by a royal agent at the Curia who lobbied papal officials on behalf of the Crown, and various papal decrees.

Reflecting on the journey: reviewing what I’ve learned

Once the specifics of a story start to take shape in my mind, it’s time to reflect on the material I’ve gathered. My principal concern is whether or not I’ve answered the questions I set out at the start of the process. If the answer is yes, I can start the writing process. But if something’s missing or I’ve identified additional questions that need to be answered, then I need to hit the books again. 

For example, with my bishops piece, I realized that I needed to contextualize King John’s Charter of Free Election for my readers. The canonical elections referred to in the charter were quite different from the contests seen in contemporary democracies. It’s an important distinction to make, as it helps explain subsequent events. But it also requires me to discuss things that occurred before King John’s charter, which in turn requires additional research. While this felt like a setback at first, it will ultimately help me craft a stronger narrative. 

The reflection state is also when I consider more practical issues like which sources need to be highlighted in the text. When you’re writing about a topic that you find interesting, it’s tempting to assume that your audience finds it just as enthralling as you do, but that’s not necessarily the case. While I can safely assume that the people reading my post are going to have a base-level of interest in the British constitution, they aren’t a monolithic group. Some would be fascinated to know the steps involved in issuing a congé d'élire, but too many excursuses can be distracting and alienate less enthusiastic readers. In the end, it’s all about balance. Focus on the sources that are most germane to your story and keep the side stories to a minimum. 

As you evaluate the information you’ve gathered, it’s always a good idea to approach it all with a degree of skepticism. Everyone has biases, both conscious and unconscious, that can influence their work. Consider the fact that so many scholars have sought to downplay the impact of the Appointment of Bishops Act 1533. Historically, the English Reformation has often been portrayed as an attempt to reclaim traditional royal powers that had been unjustly usurped by the papacy. Yet when I started digging, I discovered that the reality is far more complicated. The moral of the story is that, if you see something in a source that seems dubious in any way, it’s worth checking it out even if the author has the most impeccable credentials in the world.  

Serendipity can be your friend

Many of the topics I write about arose from my work on other projects. For example, I encountered a number of references to episcopal elections that were disputed and therefore ended up being appealed to Rome. It’s a tantalizing subject, but it would be a digression too far if I tried to explore it in this piece. Instead, I’ve added it to my list of future projects. Having a list like that helps me ensure that I never run out of ideas. 

When to call it quits

At the end of the review process, I always ask myself if I need to do more research. My initial inclination is always to say yes. I can always find a facet worthy of additional exploration. But it’s important to be realistic about your project. Even though I expanded the scope of my piece, it’s not going to be an all-encompassing account of the appointment of English bishops before the Reformation. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with telling a smaller-scale story. Otherwise, it’s easy to get stuck in a state of never-ending research. Always remember that, even if the end result isn’t perfect in all aspects, it can still provide value to your audience.


Research is a vital part of producing authoritative content, but it can be more than a little intimidating unless you’ve done extensive coursework in the humanities or a related discipline. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be an ordeal. Breaking the process down into steps can make it much less scary. I start by identifying the questions that I hope to answer. Then, I explore secondary sources to help map out the rest of my journey. I then use primary sources to dive deeper into the subject and refine my approach. Once that’s done, I can sit back and take stock of what I’ve accomplished. If I feel I have enough information to tell the story that I want, then I can move on to drafting. Otherwise, I go back into research mode. When I finally do start writing, I can be confident that I will be creating something that meets the needs of my audience.