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Research—Finding a clear need

28 March, 2014

Books - Frontal Attack(Photo credit: Whistling in the Dark)

When researching a writing project, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the material you gather. It may help to remember that the data you collect is only the straw. You still have to spin it into gold to create your book, article, or whatever you are writing.

In the beginning:  What start works for you?

Do you research first, write first, or start in some other way?

  1. Research first. Starting a writing project by first investigating a topic is a familiar process. We learned it when we were students, checking the views of experts before starting an assignment. I suspect many of us also like to start with research because as step one, it’s more engaging than writing. Our early writing can be demoralising as we wrestle with competing thoughts and stare at a blank screen. Research provides action—we hunt down sources, make piles of notes, accumulate enough material to give us a sense of accomplishment.Starting with research is fine—if we control it. It is easy to go too wide or too deep. Some writers collect such diverse information that they end up with information overload, swamped by various points of view and interesting but inconsequential material. Some writers go so deep into a particular topic that they begin to doubt if their individual take on it is worth writing about.
  2. Write first. Barbara Turner-Vesselago, who teaches a writing approach called Freefall Writing, believes that making writing your first step helps you discover your story/topic. You temporarily remove your analysis hat and write without constraint, capturing the first thoughts that come mind.This approach can enable you to capture more ideas than usual.  Because much of this first writing is raw, ragged and wild, you may discover a new direction or find new themes you would not have thought of otherwise. And it may help you identify what you do not know, so that you can focus on where research is needed.
  3. Question first.  Some writers make questions their first step. The answers they come up with help them focus both their writing and research. Examples: Why do I think  my topic or story is interesting and of value? What do I most want to communicate about this topic? Why would readers find it valuable or interesting? What kinds of readers would my material attract, and why?The focus on motive helps you assess what and how much material you need. It can also show you what material dissipates this focus, shifting readers’ attention elsewhere. 
  4. The Middle Way or ‘Sandwich’
    This approach has three stages:
    Base:  Undertake a  small, focused investigation to discover the most important ideas.
    Filling:  Develop a loose first draft to see where it leads you.
    Top: Conduct further research as needed.

Find the known in the unknown

Once we have our topic and work out what we know and don’t know, we can jump into research—right? Turner-Vesselago suggests one more pre-writing step:  Identify whatever you know about unfamiliar areas in your topic.

Her example:  We may know nothing about the ‘anxious situation’ that prevailed in the 17th century French court. But by drawing on what we understand about human nature, we can grasp how people may treat each other when in a similar situation.

Motivation and emotions are two important elements that entice readers to keep reading. By focusing on the important issue of WHY, we get a better idea of what and how much to include of the WHEN, WHERE, and other details.

More research while writing

After the initial research and drafting, we usually have more research to undertake. New material comes to hand, new ideas change our thinking.

Turner-Vesselago cautions against halting your writing to undertake more research because you run the risk of never getting back to your writing. I know that problem. I can lose myself in looking up various facts and ideas. When I return to my draft, I find I’ve lost the flow.

Now I resist the urge to stop writing. Instead, I type the word CHEKME at each point where I need information. I make the word a different colour so I can find it easily and sometimes add an explanatory note, such as CHEKME  DEATH-DATE. If I’m on a roll but see where more information is needed, I add a quick XXXX. Like CHEKME, it helps locate points to develop later. If you love researching, refraining from looking up material  immediately when questions come up may seem like cruel and unusual punishment. Persevere!

Geraldine Brooks is a  former journalist now lauded for her award-winning historical fiction (e.g., Year of Wonder, March). She suggests researching only when a writer sees a clear need to do so. In one of her 2011 Boyer Lectures she explains that although facts form the basis of her historical fiction, fiction dictates its design. It is the story that  ‘must tell me what it is I need to know.’ Whenever she discovers that she needs more information, ‘only then do I go looking for it.’

© Marsha Durham, Writing Companion blog on WordPress, 2007-2014.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 April, 2014 9:21 am

    Thanks Marsha, you’ve got me back on track. I have been stuffing around with research for a story, while the story itself has just been buzzing round my head like mosquito when you are trying to go to sleep. Among other sources, anything you’re looking at over the past 50 odd years will have a wealth of YouTube video to inform it, but that can ultimately turn into procrastination rather than research. It was good to get some background material to help place me in the right timezone, but it sidetracked me in the end. So 3 days ago I stopped researching and started writing, and I reckon I’ll finish the draft and then go back with a much clearer idea of what I actually need to check or verify. I really value your timely intervention into this project.


    • 6 April, 2014 2:09 pm

      Thanks so much, David. As a former academic, I’m a practised researcher, which is beneficial in for some writing projects and not so great for others. I’ve had to learn to steer away from IBNE items–interesting but not essential. Although writing first doesn’t come naturally to me, a week-long writing course with Barbara Turner-Vesselago provided proof that writing first, at least for me, can unleash creative aspects I’m less likely to find or develop otherwise. Good luck with your project.


  2. 28 March, 2014 7:12 pm

    I feel Geraldine Brooks’ method would be the one I’d do. I just want to get writing first, just to get something down, and then let it dictate what I should be researching further. I found the Nanowrimo 50,000 Words in a Month writing challenge a wonderful boost in getting me motivated and getting that writing down – all 50,000 words of it. After that I had the fun of editing, polishing up – and researching! And what, to me, looks like the draft for a fantastic potential fun novel…. which I’m sure would need further editing, polishing, researching etc if I were ever to be bold enough to try publishing it (it’s currently sitting in my Google Blogger). Meanwhile I certainly enjoy reading it!

    I feel if I tried to start with researching I’d simply end up procastinating and getting too involved with too much – albeit very interesting – reading, much of which I might not, in the end, need to know, rather than getting on with that writing.


    • 29 March, 2014 9:08 am

      First, congratulations on reaching the Nanowrimo goal! I write short fiction and am now writing a non-fiction work so have never tried it, although the process is similar in terms of getting lots of words down in a short time.

      Yes, research can be a way to procrastinate when we could be writing. Researching seems much more virtuous than watching TV.


      • 29 March, 2014 6:38 pm

        Thanks Marsha! Yes, the Nanowrimo was great to do and really got me stimulated – which, for me, can be an uphill task I’m afraid. I’m wondering if they do it at other times and not just once a year in November as I could with some more ‘stimulating’ now.

        I got rid of my TV some years ago as I never watched the thing! I find TV not only a time-stealer but, with my impact-sound-sensitiviy, I can’t stand its noise.

        I also noted your very good method of inserting ‘CHECKME’ at certain points of your writing. This is far better than, as you say, losing your writing flow whilst you get sidetracked by researching.


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