Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Reflection – Why the #AtoZChallenge is a perfect method of research

Another year, another challenge, another Reflection Post.
I love to read everybody’s Reflection Post at least as much as I like reading the Theme Reveals. It’s like a great party, and I love going around.

So, I completely the challenge. Pfiuh! I was counting on it. I mean, I never took failing as an option, but the last part of the challenge was very hard and demanding and I’m not sure I would have done it if I hadn’t had a few years of experience on my back. Doing a part of the scheduling ahead of time also helped a lot. You would think preparing the headers, downloading the letters and placing them in the right place, adding recurring feature and optimizing the post as much as you can do before actually writing it wouldn’t take that much of time. Well, I’ll just say that I was very happy to have it done already when the time came to finalise each post.

The challenge was announced at the end of January and I knew it was a bit late, but still though I had time enough to do a decent enough job. I mean, this would be true if this were an usual year at work. It isn’t. In April, my schedule kept changing and I worked many days 9:00/19:00 which, with the commuting time, didn’t leave much time or energy for preparing the challenge. But I put in work everywhere I could (including on the train to and from work), I did come to the beginning of April with a week worth of posts ready to go and all of my notes taken down. I knew I could do it. And I did… though I had to drop all networking halfway through the challenge and I apology with all my fellow bloggers, but I really had no other choice. I promise I’ll catch up during the Road Trip.
It was a big let down. Networking during the challenge is half the fun, but I still enjoyed the challenge because I learned about a subject I’ve come to love. Weimar Germany is an incredible place to hang around in. I already knew it, but the challenge gave me the opportunity to appreciate it even more.
I know I’ll go back again in the near future.

You can read the list of pots here.

A powerful researching tool

There’s something I realised last year and this year’s challenge confirmed it: the AtoZ Challenge is a powerful tool of research and learning. Both last year (1940s Film Noir) and this year (Weimar Germany) I started off having just a cursory knowledge of the subject matter I chose. But by the end of the challenge I felt I had a good understanding of the same subject.

You need to write 26 entries for the challenge (which is no small amount of posts on just one subject), but what is more interesting, in my opinion, is that you need to follow the alphabet. This means that you are forced to go out of what would be your comfort zone and go looking for topics that will match the alphabet, which is a process that requires a basic general knowledge and will give more indepth knowledge in return. It’s a win-win.

I thought I’d share my process in writing the challenge, which for me is also a good process of starting researching a subject for a writing project. I hope this will be useful to other writers out there.

The #AtoZChallenge is a very effective method of researching a subject for a #writing project #writingtips #amresearching Click To Tweet

1. Gathering information

WHY THE ATOZ CHALLENGE IS A PERFECT METHOD OF RESEARCH - The AtoZ Challenge is a powerful tool of research and learning. You may start off having just a cursory knowledge of the subject matter you chose, but the reserching and writing of the challenge will give you a good undeerstanding of that subject matter. Here's how I do it.

The very first stage is of course gathering information. This is the more time-consuming stage of the whole process and it normally takes me 2/3 months at least.
In order to come up with 26 different topics on the same subject and matching the alphabet you need to start off with a fairly solid basic knowledge of the matter. And if you don’t have that kind of basic knowledge already, you need to build it.
I normally work both on books and on the net.

1. Doing the basic research on books
Books are great to get a general feeling for a subject. Yes, I suppose you could do the entire research on the net, but honestly I wouldn’t advice it. The main characteristic of the net is that it answers your questions, but what happens when you don’t know what question to ask? Or worse, when you don’t even know there is a question to ask?
That’s why I like starting with books. Books will cover a subject on a wide range, regardless of your particular interests. You’ll want to start with a general few of your subject. For my research on Weimar Germany, for example, I started with two books covering the general history of the period, one covering WWI in particular, and two covering Weimar social history.
I prefer to go with two books on the same subject because when you start researching, you don’t have the knowledge to recognise what is likely facts and what is likely the author’s personal interpretation. Of course the best thing is making up our own ideas, but this can be done only after reading several books on the subject. However, reading at least two books will give us two different takes and will help us stating to discern what is fact and what is the author’s position.
This first stage of the research is very important because this is were you start gathering the ideas of what your topics might be. And of course the more you read, the more ideas you’ll have on how to cover the letters of the alphabet and especially how to handle the very tricky ones. Building a general knowledge will expand your possibility to be creative and you can afford to do that only when you’re knowledge of the subject starts to be solid.

2. Going deeper on the World Wide Web
I do use the net to research and I do think it is a beautiful tool, especially when you go down researching specific topics. Where books are wonderful to get a general feeling of a subject, the net is great to give you a closer look to the specific topics, provided you know what to look up.
For example, I would have never been able to research the meaning of the swastika and its shifting history without the net, because this is such a specific topic that how do you even find it in books? It might be there, but be covered maybe in a page. How do you even find it? (unless, of course, you have read the entire book).
Besides, I might have never come to research the swastika if I hadn’t get a first knowledge of it reading books. Above all, I might have never come up with the right keywords to search it and to get pertinent information if I hadn’t read more widely first.

To me, there is no complete research without both books and internet. They complement each other, they give you the means to get the best out of both. For me, they work beautifully in tandem.

When you research a topic, books and the net will give you different, complementary information #writingtips #amresearching Click To Tweet

2. Come up with the alphabetical topics

AtoZ Challenge 2018 square badge

This is were the challenge truly adds to the researching process. Of course you could research a subject and write about it anyway. But having to follow the alphabet gives you opportunities and forces you to look beyond  your own whim.

When you start to lay down the topics, there will be some which are obvious. On my Weimar series, for example, there was never a doubt that B would be for Berlin, that C would be Cabaret, H would be Hyperinflation, N would be Nazi, and that W would be Women. These are all well known subjects that even people who are not into Weimar history could probably come up with.
But as you tick down the letters, the ones remaining become trickier to cover and you’ll need to delve deeper into your research. This is where you need that general knowledge that you built on books. For example, I didn’t start out thinking I would cover G with Great War, until my readings made me realise it is impossible to speak about Weimar knowing nothing of WWI. And what about O for Occultism? Of course I knew already that the 1920s were a time of fascination with the occult, but before I research Weimar Germany I thought it was more a upper class fad. Instead I learned from one of the books I read that the occult became a means to cope with the terrible loss of the war and it was actually quite wide spread, both during the war, right inside the trenches, and after.
At this point both the more obvious and the ‘requiring a certain knowledge’ letters will be covered. What to do with the rest?
Well, this is were you need to get creative and you can only do that if you have already built a certain awareness of the subject, which can only be achieved by reading widely. I came to these letters last, after reading books and articles online about other subjects I had already chosen. More often than not, these letters will be covered with concepts you didn’t know before starting to research (I never fathomed there would be an F for Fuhrerprinzip) or with concepts you need to elaborate in order to include. For example I really wanted to blog about the European Civil War, but there was no chance that I renounced to E as Expressionism, C as Cabaret and W and Women. But then I noticed that the letter I was still vacant and the idea struck me that the European Civil War covered the time between the wars. Strictly speaking, the Inter-war Years. This topic is also notable because I wouldn’t have been unable to cover it without books. If you look up the resources for this post, you’ll notice that there are two books and only one link… which is actually a review of Travero’s book. Although I found the concept of the European Civil War in at least two of the books I read, I couldn’t find anything online, not even specifically searching for it. I suspect this happens because the concept requires such a globality of knowledge that the internet (which tends to be specific) won’t give you.
Something similar happened with P for Post-war Society, which is such a wide matter that if you try to google it, you’ll come up with information so general and cursory to be utterly useless.

I guarantee that you’ll need all your knowledge to cover those 26 letters, because it will require you to think deeply to the subject and often think outside the box. I also guarantee that once you have covered all the letters, you’ll have a pretty good and wide idea of what you are blogging about.

Writing articles of blog may not seem part of the reserching project, but it's only when we write down articles for others that we start to own a subject #writingtips Click To Tweet

3. Writing the 26 posts

Here comes the time to get down to the dirty job: write the damn thing! This may seem a part of the researching process that may be useful only for the challenge. I wouldn’t say so. Researching and learning is all nice and good. Stocking information is of course necessary for any writer. But we can only write about a topic we own – which is a different thing than ‘knowing about it’.

My rule of thumb is: try never to copy from the sources. And this not only because that would be plagiarism and it is not nice, but also because we need to use our own words if we want to own a subject. At the very least, I try to write the same thing with different words and if I can’t do that, then it means I need to do more research, read more about it and learn more until I understand enough to rewrite those words.
Writing about a subject means we need to elaborate it. It means that knowing the information is not enough, but we need to browse through it, group the info we need to cover one of the letters, give it a sense and a logic form and finally, write it down in a way that not only spells the info, but it’s hopefully interesting for a reader – which of course means we need a plan and a purpose.
Sounds like a writing project? Maybe because it is.

A funny thing that I’ve noticed is that as I write the challenge, although the subjects should be random (I am after all following the alphabet, not a project plan), the series normally takes up a shape. I mean, Weimar Germany started with Armistice, which is indeed the beginning of the Weimar Republic, and ended with Zentrum, from which came the last Chancellor whose actions allowed Hitler to size power and effectively end the republic.
I wonder, is it really just chance?
Personally, I don’t think so. I think that’s part of the elaboration process. As we choose the letters, we also start to have a picture in mind, same as it happens when we first outline a novel. We don’t really know what the final form will be, but we have an idea that guides us.
I think that as we absorb the subject we have researched, as we elaborate it and make it our own, as we plan all the different letters, we also slowly make sense of the subject itself. We start to get away from the sources we have read and start to approach our own understanding of the subject.
That’s were we start to own it. That’s when we start to be able to write about it. That’s when it becomes useful to us as writers.

The AtoZ Challenge gives us the opportunity to write and share 26 posts about the same theme. It is a great fun, but it is also a great opportunity of research and learning. A great opportunity to be better writers.

Let me shout it out!

This year challenge offered a great deal of fantastic subjects to read. I’d like to shout out the ones I enjoyed the most. To the authors of these themes I’d like to say, sorry, I know I haven’t finished read most of it, but I will!

I would also like to say a big thank you to the readers who stayed with me all through the challenge and read and commented on most (in some cases all) of my post. A big thank you to Hilary, Birgit and Kristin (who also did the challenge) and Margot and John, who are friends of this blog. You are awesome!!

And last but not least, a huge thank you to the cohosts, who put in a load of work in the background. Arlee Bird, Jeremy Hawkins, Zalka Csenge, John Holton, J Lenni Dorner and Jayden R Vincente.

The Lighthouse – Atherton’s Magic Vapour
I met Melanie on the challenge the very first year I took part and every year we meet again. She always participates with fiction, and let me tell you she has some awesome ideas. This year her challenge wasn’t really a story, but it was a manual for time travellers that build an alternate future. Loved it. And loved her humour as always.

Novella – Fiction Can Be Fun
I met Debs last year on another blog (I understand she writes for a few) when she blogged about jazz and fiction. This year she joined in with her writing partner David and wrote a complete novella set in post WWII Great Britain. It’s full of action, spies, political plots and great characters. Great fun.

The Space Between Bookstores – Writing is Communication
This was a discovery of this year. I found Shari while perusing the Theme Reveal list and I was fascinated by her idea for a story on 100 words every day centring around a bookstore. The format is unusual and it lends to a very unusual story, with a strong dreamlike feeling.

A Tour of the Countries of the European Union – Iain Kelly
I met Iain last year, when he wrote a mystery novella during the challenge. This year, he explored the 28 countries of the European Union through short fiction, exploring the history, the culture, the personality of every country. Fascinating journey.

Kyoto Steampunk – Hopes and Dreams: My Writing and My Sons
Now, I did meet Lillian on the challenge the very first year I took part, but over the time we’ve come to be fellow bloggers and I don’t really associate her to the challenge anymore.
This year she explored the world of one of her series which was actually a beautiful way to explore Victorian Era Japan and its culture as well as the meeting/colliding of the Japanese and Western cultures.
It was a mix of fantasy and history and I loved it.

Ancient Egypt – Kelsey Ketch
I literally stumbled upon Kelsey’s blog by mere chance, I don’t even remember how. I think I probably saw a tweet. And I was fascinated with her theme: ancient Egypt culture and history. She’s the author of a series of urban fantasy novels inspired by ancient Egypt but her challenge was about the actual history. I’ve always loved Egypt and still I’ve always known so little about it. This was a fantastic opportunity to learn more.

Alice in Wonderland – Dusting the Soul
Another discovery from the Theme Reveal list. I could not resist reading about Alice in Wonderland which is one of my all-time favourite books. I love how Tizzy went about it, not just exploring the different characters and situation, but delving into history, psychology, storytelling techniques, possible interpretations. I comprehensive exploration of the book.

WTF – Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales – The Multicolour Diary
Zalka is one of the AtoZ Challenge’s cohosts and I met her the very first time I took part in the challenge. She’s a professional folktales storyteller… and I mean, how awesome is that?
She always blogs about folktales during the challenge, favouring unusual concepts. This year she focused on her homeland’s folktales. You couldn’t believe the weirdness she unearthed!

There were lots of other themes worth exploring (I followed some 40 blogs during the challenge) so please take a look at the master list and find your own favourite one.
The challenge always promotes a carry-on of the reading and networking in the months that follow April (they call it the Road Trip) because really, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the networking during the challenge, but there’s no reason not to catch up afterword.

I hope you enjoyed my Weimar Germany challenge. Hope you found my writing process of help and I hope you’ll explore more themes in the list. And who knows? Next year, you might want to join!


  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted May 7, 2018 at 13:41

    Thank you for the kind mention, Sarah. I learned so much from you with this challenge; it was a pleasure to read all of your posts and find out such interesting things. Blogging – especially daily blogging as you’ve done here – is a real investment of time and energy. I give you all credit for doing this, especially with your busy work schedule!

    • Post Author
      Posted May 7, 2018 at 15:29

      Thanks Margot! Blogging is indeed an investment of time and energy, but I love it, so I don’t really mind. And when I can see people enjoying it, that’s the best repay ever.

  • Birgit
    Posted May 7, 2018 at 14:57

    You really had a very insightful look about this period in German history and i loved reading about it. Thanks for the shout out ( name is Birgit:)) I love what you wrote about how to research something and learning at the same time. Excellent work!

    • Post Author
      Posted May 7, 2018 at 15:31

      Birgit, I’m so sorry! How careless of me to mispell your name! But I have amended it 🙂

      The challenge is a great learing tool in so many ways.

  • Jack T.
    Posted May 7, 2018 at 16:00

    I never attempt this because my well-known drifting focus and “what will be fun today?” attitude make it just one more thing for me to fail at… publicly, but you have handled a difficult subject with skill and grace, and made it look easy to boot. I must offer a tip of my begoggled patrol cap for a job well-done. You’ve always been an author I admire, and this challenge didn’t diminish that admiration one bit!

    • Post Author
      Posted May 8, 2018 at 12:35

      Aww, thanks so much, Jack. You are alwasy so kind.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted May 7, 2018 at 16:41

    Awesome reflections post! 🙂 I really enjoyed your theme, and I really, really appreciate the amount of work you put into it. I learned a lot from your series this year!
    And thank you for the shout out! 🙂

    The Multicolored Diary: Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales

    • Post Author
      Posted May 8, 2018 at 12:36

      You’re very welcome, Zalka. You cohost are awesome, not only you do your own challenge, but you also organise everything! Admirable!

  • Jacqui Murray
    Posted May 7, 2018 at 16:53

    Your point about research–so true. In fact, it is one of my favorite take-aways from both writing my blogs and visiting others–and one I didn’t mention strongly enough in my reflection. What I’ve learned in a month–suffice to say I never would have done so without AtoZ.

    • Post Author
      Posted May 8, 2018 at 12:38

      True, eh? So may bloggers have so many different themes and many are so creative I’d never even dream I would want to know anythign about those subjects. There is so much to learn out there.

  • Hilary
    Posted May 7, 2018 at 17:30

    Hi Sarah – you’re so right about the research element – I hadn’t really considered that – but this year it was so obvious for my theme. I loved, loved your posts on the Weimar Republic – and really learnt a lot – and will be back to re-read through … giving me a full overview that I can take in as I follow along.

    I’ve always gone by selecting a subject relative to the ‘letter of the day’ – but this year can see your point about ‘research’ … and opening the A of the challenge, and then completing with a Z – with the middle filling being lots of interesting appropriate posts: Canada deserved that approach!

    Brilliant subject you gave us … and thanks for suggestions to other bloggers that we might connect with … thank you for the mention – it was always good to see you. Congratulations and so well done – cheers Hilary

    • Post Author
      Posted May 13, 2018 at 08:00

      Thanks for your nice words, Hilary. It means a lot to me 🙂

  • Tizzy Brown
    Posted May 7, 2018 at 18:15

    Thanks so much for mentioning me! I really liked your theme too and learned loads from it, it was really interesting to delve so deeply into the topic. I totally agree that the A-Z challenge is a brilliant way to research something. I’ve learnt lots about Alice in Wonderland to inspire my WiP. I struggled to keep up with the networking too at the end and I’m looking forward to covering more blogs in the road trip.

    • Post Author
      Posted May 13, 2018 at 08:02

      True. We always struggle to network during the challenge, but actually, there are months to catch up 😉
      I really really liked your theme and I can’t wait to see what you’re up to with your story.

  • Lillian Csernica
    Posted May 7, 2018 at 23:22

    Thank you so much for including my blog on your list. Your blog is such an inspiration to me. The layout is beautiful, and the content is always well worth reading. I’m happy to say that reading your posts this year answered questions I didn’t know I had about Germany’s history. My father’s side of the family comes from Germany, so I really appreciate knowing more about that fascinating period.

    • Post Author
      Posted May 13, 2018 at 08:05

      Happy it was useful to you. Germany in that period was the heart of Europe, so even if I’m Italian, I feel that’s still part of my history.

      I really loved you theme too. ‘Victorian’ Japan is such an interesting and unusual place.

    Posted May 8, 2018 at 04:02

    Wow, Sarah! What an achievement! Just reading and commenting on your posts was very informative for me. Take a well-deserved bow!

    • Post Author
      Posted May 13, 2018 at 08:06

      Thank you, John! You were an invaluable reader!

  • Karen
    Posted May 8, 2018 at 23:09

    I am amazed at how thoroughly researched and thought out your posts were during the challenge. I can’t believe you wrote many of them during April and not ahead of time. They were wonderful to read and so informative.

    • Post Author
      Posted May 13, 2018 at 08:09

      Thanks Karen. I can’t believe I wrote some of them during the challange either. I can’t express the feeling when I discovered that for Veteran I still had to take down all the notes… and the post was 2 days away. Which of course happened during the working week. Truly undescribable.

  • prabhu
    Posted May 9, 2018 at 09:52

    its good refection post, thanks for your writing skills that you wrote wonderful post for us.

  • Claire Noland
    Posted May 11, 2018 at 16:20

    Sarah, this is an amazing post and I think it should be featured next year as people begin the planning process for the challenge. I had most of my days planned but also found different topics as the challenge progressed and I felt free to change directions. I had numerous ideas for some letters and none for others but it all worked out by Z.
    This has been a busy season in my life – I read many blogs but didn’t have time to comment as much as I would have liked. I’m planning to go back and revisit and comment in the months ahead.
    I learned so much from your posts – about a topic I’d never thought much about.
    Thanks for sharing these other bloggers. I know I’ve missed a lot and you’ve given me some direction for bloggers to check out.
    Congratulations on a job well done.

    • Post Author
      Posted May 13, 2018 at 08:12

      Thanks so much for your visit, Clair! Oooh! Really you think my post should be feature next year? I’d be happy to be of help to other AtoZers. When I first took part int he challenge, I berely knew what I was doing, and every year I learn something more about blogging as well as about my topic.

      Thanks so much for stopping by.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted May 21, 2018 at 22:00

    You always put so much work into your A to Z posts. Research and preparation are so important. I’m amazed you wrote most of them during April itself, not ahead of time. I thought I’d cut it close by only writing my main blog’s posts in January, and powering through S-Z on my secondary blog the first day of the Challenge.

    • Post Author
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 06:51

      I always plan to write all my post (at least in first draft) before the challenge starts, but so far, that lucky event only happened once…

  • Roland R Clarke
    Posted June 2, 2018 at 23:39

    Finally, my Road Trip has brought me back to your amazing site. What a brilliant post an explanation of how you created so many great and informative A to Z posts. (I still need to finishing reading some of them.) I fear that my research leaves a lot of the correct steps out.

    • Post Author
      Posted June 4, 2018 at 08:15

      So nice to see you visiting, Roland!
      We all have our methode of research, you know? Mine isn’t more effective then others. It just works for me and I thought that it might work or help other people too. I’m happy to share 🙂

  • Lydia
    Posted April 29, 2019 at 15:14

    I knew very little about the A to Z challenge before I read this post. You’re making me want to participate next year! This sounds like such a fun way to research a topic and meet other bloggers.

Leave a comment