Columns > Published on March 28th, 2018

Research Isn't Writing

I used to hate research. I'd sit down to write a story and if I felt like I didn't know the topic well enough, I'd scrap it. I didn't want to be a historian, I wanted to be a writer. Of course, that was a ridiculous and harmful approach to writing, and I've since learned my lesson. I've learned that I actually don't know a damn thing, and I should be researching almost everything I write. But I've also learned that research can be incredibly fun, enveloping me in more information that I could possibly process. 

More importantly, I learned that research isn't writing. 

There is an easy trap set out before you when you decide to dive into research. That trap is the same trap writers fall into every time they open Twitter or start searching (that's a site still, right?) for a new leatherbound journal. The trap is avoidance. I'm not sure if you know this about yourself, dear writer, but you are a procrastinator. It's all right, we all are. It's natural. As long as your story is just an idea in your head, it remains perfect. The longer you can hold on to that perfection, the better you feel. But the longer you wait to write, the more likely it is that your story will never make it into the hands of someone else who finds it just as perfect as you did when you dreamt it up. Research is a good way of pretending you're writing without actually writing. 

When I was working on a novel set during Prohibition, I knew I had to research. I wasn't looking forward to it. I just wanted to write. But when I started researching, that powerful timesuck that is avoidance grabbed hold of me. I didn't want to stop. I saved files, I bought books, I read articles that were only tangentially related to the subject of my novel. I emailed other researchers. And after a while, I realized I was becoming a historian, not a novelist. 

Research should fall into the background of your story. You don't want the narrative to be about factoids. You want it to be about the characters.

It was difficult, but I forced myself to stop with the research and just start with the writing. Since then, I've had to do a lot more research, but I've developed ways to make sure it doesn't eat into my actual writing time.

Start Writing First

This one took me a while to figure out. I thought if I started writing without researching something, my story would feel inauthentic, it would reek of an outsider trying to tell someone else's story, even if that someone else was a character I created. But the truth is research should fall into the background of your story. You don't want the narrative to be about factoids. You want it to be about the characters. 

The best bet is to write as much as you can without diving heavily into the research. Once you hit areas of your story that you just can't get past without some details, then do the research, but immediately start writing based on that research. 

Now, the thing I want to make clear is that this is not a pass to skip research altogether. This is a mechanism to make sure you get writing. You're still going to go back over your story with a whole pile of additional information. This is especially true if you are #writingtheother or tackling sensitive subject matter. Don't be lazy, but don't get bogged down. 

Take Half of What You Learned and Throw it Out

The fun thing about history is just how much of it is fascinating. Once you learn something new about history or about the world around you in its current form, you want to share that information. That's good. Knowledge is power, kids. But leave that junk out of your story. Seriously, only include what is absolutely necessary. 

Are you writing a historical horror set in Washington, D.C.? Great, write about the physical aspects of the city during that time period. Write about the cultural and political influences of that time. Don't, though, write about that super interesting historical fact you learned about California during the same time period. Interesting does not equal applicable. It doesn't enrich your story and make it more historically accurate. It slows the pace and reminds the reader that they are reading.  

Research Broadly

This one is going to feel like a counterpoint to the whole premise of this article, but it's not. Yes, you should be writing more than researching. Yes, you need to be smart in what you include from your research in your writing. But at the same time, the research you do needs to be the right kind of research. What does that mean?

That means not limiting your research to an endless supply of Wikipedia rabbit holes. That means getting contrarian views on the topics you are researching. That means branching out beyond what you might be comfortable with. Call people. Speak with historical societies. Attend events. Pull yourself out of the hermit crab shell that has formed around you over the course of your writing life and explore, interact, and learn. 

Research is a wonderful thing. It can be a beating, it can be fun, it can be damaging, and it can be helpful. And sometimes, it can be all of those things at once. You'll do well as long as you research the right way and remember, research isn't writing. 

About the author

Justin Hunter received his MFA from Arcadia University. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Typehouse Magazine, Corvus Review, and (b)OINK Magazine, among others.

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