On Research: Trimming the Tree


I’m heavy in the middle of the research phase for my new book. I’m trying to read at least one academic paper a night with the goal of having roughly 100 sources for the entire book, and at least 5 sources for each chapter. The trouble is, every time I read a new paper I find five more I want to read. When you’re in deep on a subject, you’re eager to drink up all of these connections and new thoughts as much as you can. There are good reasons for this, the more research you do the better the book you’ll eventually write. But I still have to actually write this book.


I wrote an outline for the new expanded edition of Fractals You Can Draw before I entered the research phase. It shaped my initial gathering of material and gave me a good sense of the structure of the book and the kinds of topics I wanted to cover. And now several months later I realize it needs revision. I’ve added some topics, dropped others, and overall have a slightly different feel for what the book will be. The structure is the same, but in my research I’ve found myself fascinated by the different cultural expressions of fractals, sort of an abstract versus practical study all with fractals you can draw by hand, and something that was just a chapter in my original outline is now a whole part of the book.

An outline is a great way to shape your vision initially, and it’s a structure you need to continue to revisit as you get more into the execution. It can remind you of areas you still want to cover but haven’t gotten around to, and it can be a way to shape the new thoughts you’ve been having and see if they fit into the book you still want to write. As the outline matures it can be a good measure for judging the effectiveness of reading new material. Is the new material relevant enough to fit into the existing framework, or will it require a restructuring, and is that restructuring valuable? Some things will fit nicely, others won’t fit neatly but might fit the overall shape of the book, and still others might be for another book entirely. An outline can help divide your sources into these piles.

Source Limitations

I have neither unlimited money nor unlimited time. Practically speaking, my research consists of what I can do on my lunch breaks, off times, and evenings at home. Because of this, I’m more biased in favor of electronic sources, though I do have about two-dozen physical books on my source list as well. I can’t afford to pay for access to expensive databases, meaning some papers are just stuck behind a pay-wall.

Other sources are very informative, but a little hard to cite. Lectures from University classes, unattributed papers from supplemental course work, or images of cool designs from Facebook groups. Often these things aren’t great to use directly, but can point you in the direction of more traditional sources.

It can sound like these limitations are frustrating, but there is a lot of knowledge that is freely accessible, certainly more than you’d be able to read anyway. It might not actually add that much value to your book to spend tons of money on research, if the information can be found for free elsewhere. I’d love to be a world traveler, to go to the regions in India I’m reading about, but for now I’m happy to work from the writing of people who have.


In addition to writing a book with a bunch of cool fractal designs I have three goals for the book as a whole:

  1. Use fractals to introduce other interesting math subjects. Provide a good overview of fractals and math that leads people to want to learn more.
  2. Show how math and fractals are interconnected across culture and technique (math and art as universal languages).
  3. Choose fractals that can be drawn freehand or with minimal tools (compass, ruler).

Some subjects, like how fractals are used in weather prediction or chip design, are interesting to study but not really on the point of this book. At best they might be a few introductory paragraphs or notes here and there. So it doesn’t make sense to read long papers on how Hilbert Curves are used to organize data-clusters in computers unless I really want to talk about those subjects (which I don’t for this book at least).

Having a good sense of vision can eliminate the temptation for tangents, or for a knowledge dump. You’ll never be able to cover everything, and dropping in a bunch of the random trivia you’ve learned doesn’t make for particularly compelling reading. It’s better to try to say one thing well, than a dozen things poorly. Most academic papers have abstracts or intros that tell you what they’re going to be. If from the intro it doesn’t sound like the paper will contribute much to vision, it’s best to save it for another time.

These are just some of things I’m learning while putting together this book. What else have you learned from long term research projects?


1 Comment

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One response to “On Research: Trimming the Tree

  1. All of my research experience is from college, and in the field of economic history, and any lessons I learned probably won’t be useful to you for this. (It mostly has to do with restating stuff people already knew about old economic data.) But even when I was in a frenzied rush to meet a deadline, I’m not sure I could have managed one paper a night. That’s pretty impressive. 🙂

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