In this series, we examine how Umberto Eco’s book, ‘How to Write a Thesis,’ can be used to help writers improve their focus, research smarter and get any writing project done faster. In part seven, we look at the long-term value of finding sources for your research you can turn to again and again.

The Los Angeles Times once called Umberto Eco the “Andy Rooney of academia” praising his work as ingeniously irreverent. In his recently English-translated book, “How to Write a Thesis,” the professor cajoles a writer to work earnestly with gusto on a project that can forever compel you to discover new things. Eco writes: “Your thesis is like your first love: it will be difficult to forget.”

Is Eco being irreverent when he writes this? I think not.

You recognize the feeling once it has happened to you.

Just like your first love, once your intellectual metabolism gets activated, you can’t stop thinking about the thing, the person, the research. You become a victim of a compulsion to research, always tinkering with the theme, finding more questions, raising more unanswered problems.

This blog post explores how some sources, those you find and cherish, become repeat sources because they are equally fascinated with the things you wonder about. They become great companions in your quest for new stories.

old sources as new loves

Finding long-term sources for your research is like finding “the one.”

Cultivating sources on an ongoing basis is the cornerstone of a writer’s career. The old address book becomes the source of new ideas all the time for a writer because for every story you finished for a deadline, there were at least four or five other stories that could have been written.

Often multiple stories spill out of the source: Yes, your source said something during an interview, and you jotted it down, but it wasn’t something they could explain in two minutes. And even though it wasn’t super-relevant to the story you were currently writing, it sure did interest you.

An example of one of those synergized reporter-source relationships is that between WNYC’s Radiolab’s co-hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad with Dr. Oliver Sacks.

Dr. Oliver Sacks, neuroscientist and essayist, was a guest on Radiolab nearly 20 times during his lifetime. A whole generation of podcast fans has been exposed to Dr. Sacks’ seemingly esoteric views on the logic of cities, music and slave ships, or the mapping of the human brain.

One could argue that finding the one source that stimulates all sorts of compelling ideas and instigates many trips down the rabbit hole is the greatest love a writer can find in a source.

When you find these delightful kinds of people, you have to keep them, and do this:

  • Jot those extraneous notes down of the things your source said that interests you and mark them differently in your notes (maybe with an asterisk that means: Keep this on your forever-fresh-to-write-about-later list).
  • Call the source regularly to ask what they are working on.
  • Make lunch dates with sources just as you would friends to have conversations that are not deadline bound.

Caution should be sounded in terms of keeping only one favorite source. Don’t limit yourself, because all of us have blind spots, and see only a slice of the full story. A vigilant thinker will regularly assess one’s own biases and those of their sources.

As artificial intelligence tools and technology begin to search for information for us, it’s good to check their sources too, and not completely rely on the answers given in Position Zero, or Position Only provided by your search engines. Many companies who create voice-search engines obviously are finding results that point to their products, i.e. Google or Amazon. So beware the biases.

Underlying Eco’s admonishment to treat your writing and research as your first love is his way of whispering into our ear: Keep doing mischief. Keep having fun as you make sense of a world from a place of absolute unknowing.

Read other articles in this writing series: