Research, sweet research. As a lawyer, research is the life’s blood of my profession. I have to research the facts of a case, the applicable law, opposing counsel and the judge - and that is just the beginning! High school and college debate taught me how to research efficiently and effectively. I’m like a mole; I can find anything. My head (and ego) swell with the praise I’ve received about my ability to research a legal issue and crank out a well-reasoned and precise argument quickly. I thought those skills would transfer well to my non-legal writing efforts.
Starting early last week, I began planning this post. My first post had to great. No, it had to be better than great. People were actually going to read what I wrote. I needed to create Pulitzer quality material. Did I start writing and revising to get myself to that goal? Heck no! I needed to research! And what has that research accomplished? My blog post is due, and I have a huge folder busting with articles and notes about the history of International Women’s Day and countless women whose achievements deserve recognition. The word count? Oh, that is precious. The word count, you ask again? Um, well, how would you like to talk about something else.
I am going to let you in on a dirty little secret - research is my greatest procrastination tool This experience highlighted what I already knew about myself, but wanted to deny. I use research to delay writing. Several years ago, I realized that it was time to tinkle or get off the pot with respect to my aspirations to write. Laptop in hand, I used a week’s vacation at the beach to try to live the dream. I wrote a little, but nothing significant. Something hindered my progress. I knew what it was! My problem was that I hadn’t educated myself enough on how to write. That was easy enough to fix. Surely I could find a good book or two on writing.
I used to joke when I was in law school that if you could lose weight and get in shape by owning exercise videos, I would be an Olympic contender. The same goes for books on writing. I’m ashamed to admit that I spent the better part of a year reading book after book on how to write. Repeatedly, I told myself I wasn’t ready to start writing. I just needed to finish the book on plotting. I couldn’t be expected to write until I’d read enough on how to develop my characters. Somewhere around the time that the books I’d bought on how to write were equaling the books I’d bought to read for pleasure, I realized that instead of researching how to write, I needed to write.
Phase two of the procrastination process wasn’t much better. The notebook of story ideas on my desk demanded that I engage in substantive research. Oh internet, you are a seductive tool ready to steal minutes, hours, days and weeks from me. A few notebooks (and months) of research later, I realized that my obsession with substantive research was, once again, keeping me from doing what I needed to do - write. I vowed that I would have to be satisfied with a level of incompleteness in my research and start writing.
Good fortune should come to the person who designed the button on my laptop that lets me disable the internet. Feeling empowered, I hit that button and started my outline (how outlining is a procrastination tool is a post for another day). From there, I moved on to writing. But wait! I needed more research - I needed to find the perfect name for a character and the precise word for description. Convinced I had my addiction under control, I hit the internet button. I would only take a few minutes. A little necessary research won’t hurt. I think we all know how that turned out.
Hello, my name is Heather, and I am a researchaholic. To combat my addiction, I’ve developed the following steps:
- Write what you know. This keeps the temptation to research at a minimum. It is probably best that I not write a book about an astrophysicist. I’m not even sure I can spell astrophysicist without a little research, let alone write a story about one.
- Make a list of what you need and do your research in your down time. I keep a notebook and a chart next to my writing desk. The notebook contains a list of substantive research which I need to complete (history of a building, mythology, pictures of a location, etc.). The notebook also contains “lemon drop” research. (I was once in a deposition where periodically, opposing counsel would say “lemon drop.” I thought he had confectioner’s tourettes. When I asked him about it, he shared that it was his way of marking the transcript. If there was something he knew he needed to research after the deposition, he would use the index of the transcript to find all of the “lemon drop” moments.) Similarly, in my writing when I need to find a better name or word than what I have used, I insert “lemon drop” before whatever I will want to replace so I can use “find and replace” to locate the spot in the manuscript easier. I keep my notebook in my purse when I’m not writing. When I find myself with down time when I can’t write, I try to use that time to finish my research.
- Research as part of your revision process. This isn’t really a step which I developed, but a strategy I hope to employ. A friend who has published three books shared with me that she does some big picture research that would relate to plot points before she writes, but that she saves most of her detail oriented research for the revision process. I haven’t tried this, but it makes sense. She explained that this method allows her to focus on the story through the first draft. After she constructs the skeleton of her novel, she bulks up the muscle and tissue with research. I’m seriously contemplating using this method for my next book because I want to write the darn thing, not just research what goes into it.
And so I return to the writing of this blog post. I wish I’d been able to provide you with the dissertation on great women in history, but I think I need to do a little more research. The women whose accomplishments are honored on International Women’s Day didn’t simply research the world around them. They were women of action. So, in that spirit, I need to take action. No more research. It is time to write.