Research As You Go

Your number one nemesis in trying to write is, inevitably, the siren song of procrastination. There is no more effective way to remind yourself of all the errands or side projects that you really should be doing than by staring at a blank page. Computers have only amplified this threat. Hemingway had plenty of distractions to pull him away from his work, but at least when he sat down at his Royal DeLuxe, it didn’t tantalize him with Pinterest or Angry Birds.

But of course, email and social media and games are obvious distractions. In my experience, the more subtle threat -- particularly for non-fiction writers -- comes via the eminently reasonable belief that you’re not ready to start writing, because you haven’t finished your research yet. It’s a plausible excuse, of course; I used it myself countless times when I was in college and grad school, which led to a long series of extensions, including a few spring semester final papers that I spent the whole summer perfecting. There was always one more obscure article I had to track down; one more vaguely related novel that had to be in the bibliography. And so I’d postpone starting my own essay--and before long, it was Labor Day and a whole new semester was starting up, with a whole new batch of papers to postpone writing.

I do relish the research period before you start actually writing in earnest: you’re just sitting around, sifting through books and articles, following links, and playing detective. There’s something wonderfully open-ended about it, without the actual pressure of having to produce your own words. (This is why it’s such a seductive procrastination device.) But as much as I enjoy it, I have learned the hard way that you are never done with your research. Waiting around for the research phase to be complete is a recipe for infinite postponement.

So now I take a different approach. I do enough research to plan out the general structure of the book: I figure out the main themes and arguments; the main characters or ideas; in books where there are complex technical or scientific issues, I try to get a solid grasp of the fields I’m writing about. And I try to get a more comprehensive survey for the first chapter or two, so I have somewhere to start.

And then I start writing, fully aware that there are large blind spots of material that I’m going to have to track down while I’m in the middle of the book. This makes it vastly easier to get started, of course, but it has an additional benefit that has become clear to me over the years: when you’re researching in media res, the new ideas or details or stories that you stumble across are much more useful to you, because you can immediately see the slots where they belong. When you’re researching and you don’t even have a chapter outline yet, you can find an amazing story but it doesn’t really stick with you, because you have only the vaguest sense of where it should go in the book. Pre-writing, your research sensors are much more hazy: this seems interesting, I guess. But once you’re in the mix, everything sharpens up. You find a provocative quote and you can tell in a split second whether it’s going to be useful or not, and more often than not you know exactly where it’s going to go.

The end result of this is that at least 50% of the research happens while I’m in the middle of writing the book. That comes with a certain cost to flow; I’ll regularly find myself reaching some new section of the book and having to stop writing for a week while I track down the missing data I need. And, inevitably, it means going back and re-working your arguments or interpretations because you’ve uncovered new data that changes your mind about something. But in my experience, the tradeoff is worth it, because I don’t get stuck in the holding period of pre-writing research. When I start writing, I’ve done enough research to know what I’m going to need to know, but I’m nowhere near knowing everything. E. L. Doctorow once said, “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” That’s putting it a bit too strong, at least in my experience. You can’t start from nothing when you’re writing non-fiction (and I suspect you can’t with fiction either.) But if you try to start with everything, you’ll never get started at all.



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Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson

Writer. 13 books. (Latest: Extra Life.) TV/Podcast Host (Extra Life, American Innovations.) Brooklyn/Marin. Speech inquiries: wesn at leighbureau dot com.