The Research Plan: Two-step Next Steps?


18 January 2014

We find a document. We analyze it. We create a research plan for what to do next, a plan that’s based on the evidence we gleaned from that document. Standard procedure, yes. But, as with everything, the devil lies in the details—particularly how well we analyze, how well we plan, and how flexible we are as researchers.

Last Tuesday, we tried that. (’s-tests-church-record-analysis) *  We offered a document, an official church record from 1866, and gave a “what we previously knew” background about the subject of the record. Readers then offered their analyses—great ideas, all. Yvette Hoitink went a goodly bit further. After 13 bulleted issues that she astutely drew from the document, she added a five-step work plan—appropriately chosen and prioritized (except maybe for the last one {smile, please}).

Tuesday evening, after allowing all of you time to do your own assessments, we added a few of our thoughts about the document. We actually walked you through the working of our own first two steps and the result was definitely a Whoa, Nellie!  Based on the findings from Steps 1 and 2 we reevaluated the document, reached a different conclusion, and then added a totally new game plan for Steps 3 through 7.

This is what happens to most of our well-crafted research plans. Somewhere amid our pursuit of that list of must-dos, we find something that completely changes the picture we initially drew from the first document. We then revise the plan accordingly.

After our evening postscript, Yvette added one of her own: “Comparing your analysis to my own highlights one of my pitfalls: I tend to plan too far ahead. My first two steps were enough.”

Are two enough? Perhaps. If you’re left wondering How many steps should a research plan have?  our answer is As many as needed!  Most research projects involve many steps. Most individual research problems do involve more than two tasks. Even with the simplest of plans, it’s still good to plan ahead and that plan should consider three possible scenarios:

  1. The document’s details are accurate and, on that basis, we’ll do a, b, c, d, e, f, ...;
  2. The document significantly errs somewhere; everything we plan, after we discover the error, will have to be reevaluated and we need to be prepared to move in an appropriate direction while we have access to relevant records;
  3. The document’s information is all correct and our detailed plan, which has brilliantly prioritized our tasks, will lead quickly to a new find that resolves our current problem and opens up new areas of discovery.

We always hope for Scenario 3. Realistically, Scenario 2 is what we'll more likely get.

    * You'll also find other examples of record analysis in our QuickLessons archive, particularly QuickLesson 3, "Flawed Records" ( and QuickLesson 5 "Analyzing Records" (

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Submitted byyhoitinkon Sat, 01/18/2014 - 15:32

You're definitely making me rethink my strategies some more, and then some. After reading your thoughts, I think that my five-step-research plan was appropriate after all. Considering it only took me a few minutes to write down these five steps, it's not like it is a major inefficiency to change the plan if the first few steps make the last ones unnecessary or irrelevant. 

Where research planning is concerned, I think I'm still in the pendulum stage. For the first 20 years I did genealogy, I never created research plans but just thought about the next record and went for it. Then I read about research planning and went overboard, creating research plans that went on for several pages. So then I swung back again and only planned a few steps ahead. I'm still finding the optimum spot: far enough ahead to plan the research efficiently and be able to think on my feet if the records tell me something unexpected, but not so far ahead that the chances are slim that I'll ever get to any use out of the last part of the plan. 

Thank you so much for these examples and making me think, it's the best genealogical education I've ever had.