Best Practices in Research from Anton Howes
A great Substack article can read as smoothly as a well-brewed cappuccino. In fact, some of the best pieces of writing feel so natural and complete it can be easy to forget how much research goes into one. But great writing needs great research to refine initial concepts and build out arguments and analyses.
One man close to our heart who knows this well is Anton Howes. Anton is the creator of the Substack newsletter Age of Invention. In the two years since he began the newsletter, Anton has built up an audience of some 7,000 subscribers by bringing them a bold analysis of interesting but little-known facts relating to the history of innovation.
The strength of Anton’s article output is proportional to the quality of his research — and given his work is popular with everyone from fellow history buffs to inventors and Nigerian VCs, it’s safe to say his research skills are serving him well. Here are a few of the best practices in research Anton follows when building knowledge and turning it into informative, readable content with popular appeal.
Step 1. It all starts with an idea
All the sophisticated research techniques in the world are no good if you haven’t found a compelling subject, and any writer will know that sometimes the toughest part of a research project is finding that subject.
If you don’t have a focus for your research, follow your interests by reading about and around them. For a Substack writer like Anton writing about their passion, this is easy.“[Ideas for my articles] come from a long practice of searching for historical nuggets,” he told us.
The focus of your research will emerge as you read further and determine what questions are worth asking. Anton explained to us that the idea for Age of Invention came about when he was wondering how economic growth worked through history. Asking this question led him to his subject focus. “I didn’t go into my research thinking the British industrial revolution was the thing to look at,” Anton admitted. “[But] as I began to look more in-depth at it, I became increasingly obsessed.”
When you’re stuck on ideas, another good solution can sometimes be to write your way in. The initial output might be unfocused, but it can unearth ideas. It’s a strategy Anton swears by. “I'll typically just open Substack and start writing,” he said. “I'll then go with whatever I find interesting and relate it to wider problems I've been working on or [see] how it differs from what most people expect.”
Step 2. Follow the insights wherever they lead
Starting a research process with a specific conclusion in mind can bias your search —in fact, some of the most valuable insights you unearth will be the ones that surprise you most. When you’re researching, expect the unexpected, and go with it.
Age of Invention didn’t become a success by serving up boilerplate history to its readers. As a newsletter, its appeal is that the historical facts it unearths are surprising. Anton knows when he’s found a historical nugget worth exploring in an article when he’s found something he’s surprised by.
One week, Anton was researching the English involvement in trans-Atlantic trading activity. “Some of the stuff I was reading was surprising,” he recalled. “It seemed English involvement in the Atlantic and especially things like the slave trade were much smaller before the 1630s than I expect most other people think, especially because with hindsight we know just how much [Britain’s involvement] grew.”
Anton followed this surprising trail and continued his research, “and related it to other knowledge I already have from the period and have picked up.” The result was a popular article.
Step 3. Talk about your subject with like-minded enthusiasts
We think of research as a solitary process, but it can be helpful to have someone to bounce ideas off of when you’re building your understanding of a subject. Conversations are great for stimulating ideas and coaxing out insights.
Anton has a number of these sparring partners who help him determine research focus and work ideas into shape.“[I often talk with] Jason Crawford on the history of invention side,” Anton told us. “We often bounce ideas off one another. On the economic history side, the anonymous Pseudoerasmus has been a long-time interlocutor.” By keeping these conversations going, your ‘research network’ can help you shape existing ideas or even give you new leads like Jason did here:
And the value of collaborative research can be useful beyond an article’s research phase, too. Anton told us how he’s a big fan of and has engaged in, ‘blog conversations.’ In these instances, writers who respect one another’s work go back and forth on their respective platforms, writing articles responding to one another’s ideas.
Step 4. Embrace your external brain(s)
When you’re dealing with a huge number of research sources, remember to use the right tools to give your brain some help. No one ever said research was easy, and you’re all but guaranteed to lose track of sources and pieces of information if you don’t record and store them carefully.
You’ll find the following research tools helpful when keeping track of interesting research threads.
Simple but effective: a list of sources in Excel is easy to manage and sort through and will make losing important information less likely. If your research involves web scraping or handling statistics, having somewhere to store key CSVs is vital. A well-populated Excel document is part of Anton’s research arsenal. “I have one vast Excel spreadsheet of the inventors I've researched,” he told us.
Scrivener is a text-formatting writing assistant that allows you to draft and restructure your words. It’s structurally designed for writers to help you maintain visibility and control over your draft even as it grows in length and complexity.
It’s another of Anton’s favorites. He uses Scrivener “when I just find something interesting and [need to] start taking detailed notes...For this post, I was able to derive insight from a few things in just 20 or so pages that really stood out to me...[I have] literally millions of words of notes in my Scrivener from this method.”
It can be a real savior, too, when Anton’s feeling uninspired. “If I'm really, really stuck for something,” he confessed, “I'll typically just open my Scrivener and scroll...until I find something that I think will be surprising to readers. Sometimes my most successful posts have been [posts that started that way]!”
Even with all those tools in hand, there’s still the chance a worthwhile resource might slip your mind as you’re Googling in pursuit of your subject. That’s where Heyday comes in.
Heyday automatically saves all of your research as you find it and then resurfaces those source materials when you need them. Whenever you’re covering familiar ground, Heyday will remind you what information you’ve already reviewed on the subject. By searching through Heyday, you can find buried information in your tabs, in documents, emails, and messages, too.
“Mighty Things from Small Beginnings Grow”
When you think of research, you might think of a wall with spider diagrams, binders bulging with notes, and formal approaches to knowledge building that are supposed to help you get your content from A to Z. But research doesn’t always have to be tightly structured; it’s just as often about indulging an instinct and seeing where it leads you.
Because sometimes with great writing, strong initial priorities are overrated. Sometimes you find out everything you thought you knew about your subject was wrong and this new idea you came up with on the way is more compelling than your original one. Great research helps you manage that process. Then, once you’ve found that fascinating concept, the right research strategies, and tools will help you finesse it into shape.
Your own research helping hand
Add the Heyday extension to your browser to automatically resurface source materials and other information buried in your tabs during research.