How much research should you do? When do you stop? Are you ever really done?
Nonfiction authors, workplace writers, and historical fiction writers generally write in their genres because they’re interested in the subject matter. It’s easy to get caught up in the research and never let go.
Find your own balance between being diligent about researching and getting the work done.
Context matters. If you’re writing a doctoral thesis, the research must be rigorous. If you spend months researching for a weekly blog post, you won’t get anything done.
As someone who enjoys research but wants to be productive, I’ve wrestled with this problem. Here are five guidelines I use to stay on track.
1. Dive In Early
The sooner you can start the research on a project, the better.
Research primes your brain to work on the topic long before you’re ready to start writing.
Reading and taking notes on a topic triggers the incubation phase of the creative process. Even when you’re not actively working, part of your brain will be tuned to notice connections or think of ideas.
Over the past few months, even while writing a new book, I’ve been researching two other topic areas. I’m reading, collecting my thoughts, making notes, and writing down sources as I spot them.
Because I’ve started the research process, even at a low level, my brain continues to look for ideas and inspiration on those topic areas. If or when I’m ready to get into more detail, I’ll be starting at a different place.
2. Go One Level Deeper Than Necessary
Research one layer deeper than you think you’ll use.
The most efficient method might be to gather exactly what you need. But what you gain in efficiency by skimping research, you lose in quality.
Going deeper prevents you from inadvertent errors, and exposes problems that lurking beneath the surface. It also improves the writing: to explain something clearly, you must understand it well.
The phrase one layer deeper is subjective. Aim for having more research notes and sources than you use. Even if you put them aside, they inform your writing and thoughts.
3. Keep Your Eyes Open
There’s another good reason to start the research phase early: with adequate time, you can explore the topic and expand your understanding.
Give yourself permission to wander (for a while) in the research. Following interesting links. With an open mind, you may discover connections and ideas that enrich your work.
One of my favorite stories on this topic comes from Jennifer S. Alderson, author of The Lover’s Portrait, a mystery with an art history theme. In digging through the archives, she discovered details that changed the course of her story. Read her blog post How Archival Research Added Texture To My Novel.
4. Don’t Get Stuck in the Weeds
“How do you gauge when enough research is enough? How do you know when you’re researching as a method of procrastination, versus adding value to the finished product?”
An experienced ghostwriter asked me this question. If you love doing the research, you face the danger of getting carried away. Research can be addicting.
You feel productive when you’re researching. Heck, you look productive to the outside world with your piles of books or notes. It’s easy to feel productive.
But remember: writing productivity is measured in finished work, not hours spent.
At some point, you have enough to move on. You don’t have to stop researching altogether, but you do need to start shaping the content into the end product.
In research as in life, perfection is the enemy of productivity.
5. Don’t Fall In Love with the Research
People who love doing research risk becoming so involved in the facts that they lose sight of the reader’s needs. In these situations, you may end up with a research report.
People remember stories, not data. They don’t really care about the work you did digging up those stories, either. Return to your reason for writing.
Business writing tip: When writing in a business context, you may be tempted to demonstrate how hard you worked to draw your conclusions or state your case. Most people don’t want to follow you along the mental path you took to the endpoint. Lead with your claim, then provide the research to back it up.
On incubating: Saving Unwritten Ideas for Later
On scoping the work: How Long Will It Take to Write This Thing?
Jennifer’s post about archival research on the Women Writer’s, Women’s Books blog.