Going through my pre-written posts to figure out which would be next, I noticed a lack of research cited. I chose my posts by what I already knew and could share here, by what was “safe.” This isn’t a bad thing necessarily – I wrote a lot of them quickly to build a buffer of articles – but it negates the reason I wanted to start this blog. I wanted to participate in a concept called “Learning Out Loud,” where your audience follows along as you practice skills. So I’ve decided to regroup my efforts.
I’m in the process of learning and I wanted this blog to reflect that. Therefore, future posts are going to be mostly about approaches or theories I have trouble with or want to learn about. I will also have posts written about more basic topics for the newbie writers out there, but they will be better researched. I am not a professional writer – yet! – but that doesn’t mean I can’t find information from pros and bring it to you. After a little more practice with this, I’m going to go back to fix the older posts as well. Anything that can be researched, will be.
What Will the First Post be About?
Researching, of course! I wanted to figure out a new routine for myself when it comes to writing, so that I can be better prepared for the upcoming posts. I also figured that, if I have trouble remembering to or doing enough research, I might as well make that the first topic. So I’ll do my research about this topic, write an (actually informative) article about it, and then cobble together a routine that seems to match what is recommended combined with what I think I’ll actually do. After writing a few more articles, I’ll be able to revisit this routine to see how it has ended up.
After watching a lot of CinemaSins, a YouTube channel where they (hilariously) rip apart movies for cliches, unbelievability, sexism, and other nonsense, I’ve grown more and more critical of what I consume. Now, I see problems in things like crime scene contamination or general, common-sense protocol violations – issues that could easily been avoided had the writers done a little research (or if someone hadn’t been overly eager with having tense scenes over sensical ones). It is particularly bothersome in shows where sometimes it matters and sometimes it doesn’t. It pulls me out of the story, and I stop being as affected by it.
For nonfiction, make sure you have all the facts before you write, or else you hurt your credibility. Good stories sell, good stories plus credibility sell well.
This article will not be perfect, for sure. I am, as I explained already, learning about all of this, including how to do better research. So my sources may not be the best, and the way I bring this information into my articles may be a little disjointed, but I will do my best and continue to do my best with the time and resources I have.
What I Found While Researching About Researching Before You Write
Potential Pitfalls and Suggested Solutions
Having too much information
Jake Wolff on Literary Hub writes about this. He has a problem with doing all the research required for a story and then, instead of writing fiction, writes a textbook. He gets around this issue a few different ways.
The first way is playing “two truths and a lie” in his story. Basically this means looking up two facts about what you’re writing about, and then making up something fictitious that sounds right. I feel like this could still carry the possibility of making your writing sound like a textbook, depending on the types of “lies” you tell, but combined with the next suggestion, would work.
The second suggestion is to go back over your draft and highlighting everything you had to do research for. This allows you to see the distribution of information so you don’t end up with dense passages. If you’re not sure how often facts should be in your work, Wolff suggests that you do the same highlighting on another work similar to yours (novel, short story, etc of the same genre) that you enjoy to see how much information they included that you would have needed to research if you had written it.
Not having enough information
Conversely, you could end up with not enough information. This causes two different problems. The first one is similar to my example of why you need to research in the first place. If you don’t have enough information about how something works, you can’t always write about it accurately for those who already know. Obviously if there are only three people in the world who do a job you’re writing about, you have some wiggle room. But you should know how life in the country you’re writing about works, or protocols for an occupation that is fairly common.
The second problem this can causes looks like this:
You are writing a horror novel. Your protagonist and her trusty side-kick are currently walking down the hallway of a 150-year old Victorian-style home, toward the sound of some thumping.
Thump thump. Thump-thump.
Your protag and sidekick come to a Y-shaped hallway, and they can’t tell where the sound is coming from. Breaking the number one rule of any D&D campaign, they decide to split the party. One goes left, one goes right.
Out of the corner of her eye, your protag sees the ghost of — wait. Do Victorian-style houses have Y-shaped hallways? Let’s look that up, it’s got to be just a quick google, right? Well, now you’ve found the answer, but you’ve lost the flow of what you were writing. Your word count is also going to suffer, especially when you have six more things to look up.
For the first issue, Sarah Gribble of The Write Practice says that she will get an idea of what she wants to write, and then make a list of everything that she wants to research before getting started. Her example talks about knowing what your main character does for a living and the area that they live in, and then figuring out everything you could possibly need to write about them. This can lead to too much information, but as long as you counter that problem, you will be much better off in the long run.
For the issue of interrupting your story for the sake of researching something, nearly everyone who writes about this has the same solution. When what you want to research is something small and easily fixable later, put some kind of marker in the spot. What type of marker depends on if you’re hand-writing this or typing it and what language you’re using. If you’re hand-writing, I would recommend a highlighter or a different color pen, and if you’re typing in english ‘TK’ or something like ‘XXXX’ is recommended. This is because there are no words in English that look like that so it can be found easily with CTRL+F. Then, you can continue writing your scene, keep the feel, keep the words flowing, and fill in the blanks later.
This problem is similar to not having enough information and searching while in the middle of a scene. In this case however, you are unsure of where to go or if you’ll be able to write it well. You head off to the Great Googly Moogly to search for hallway trends, and two hours later you’re looking up how to conjugate sentences in Welsh. Your story may not have even started in this scenario. You just spend months and months researching and never writing anything. “Just a little bit more,” you think. “Then I’ll have enough.” Meanwhile you now know more about a foreign country than the people who live there.
To fix this problem, Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn suggests you do just enough research to write one section. This creates a sort of balance between consuming and producing. Combined with the list-making that Gribble writes about, it would look like this: decide on what you want to write, make a list of everything you will need to know to write it, do the research for just that bit of information, and then write the scene.
Putting It All Together
Here is the “learning out loud” part of all of this. As you can probably tell from how different this post is from all my other ones, I don’t usually do a whole lot of research before I write. I really, really want to change that. So what I’m going to do is put all of what I’ve learned from my research to write this article into practice, and design my own process for researching. I’ll keep tweaking this process as I write other posts, short stories, etc., and once I have found the way that works for me for sure, I will write another post about that. Along with different updates along the way. I already foresee a few posts that detail specific areas of how to research.
So What Will my New Process Look Like?
- Decide what I’m going to be writing about overall.
- I can’t begin to narrow down my search if I don’t know what the broader part of it is.
- Have to start somewhere.
- Decide what I will need to know in this topic, narrowing down the scope as needed.
- Things to consider: legal implications, lingo, important people, culture, setting, professions, etc.
- If I find there is TOO much info on this topic, then narrow it down. For the blog, possibly have an “intro” and then posts that get more into the details in the future.
- Make the list, and decide what “done” looks like.
- This will keep me from procrasti-searching and on a schedule.
- Make a list of all the different types of sources I want to use
- Interviews, blogs, books, journals, newspapers, TV shows/movies/documentaries/etc., travel/experiential activities (workshops, museums etc.), and so on.
- Decide on a budget and time period for work
- Can’t travel to Italy for a blog that makes no money, when you have no money.
- Can’t take a six-week course if the piece is due in three days.
- Do the research while taking as many notes as possible.
- Make sure to only use reliable information.
- Keep organized.
- Make note of all your sources and the required information for citing them.
- If I find myself going into a black hole of information, figure out why.
- Too much info out there?
- Not enough info out there?
- No reliable information?
- Am I just procrastinating again?
- Once I have all of the information I think I need, get to writing.
- I shouldn’t need to do any more massive searches for information.
- Two choices for writing style:
- Research a section, write a section.
- Research all of the things, then write all of the things.
- Depends on what I’m writing and how much research time I’ll need plus my own writing style.
- If I run into a fact or a word or something I need to look up in order to fill in a gap in my writing, I’ll use some kind of placeholder.
- Once I am done writing, I’ll use a highlighter (or a highlighting tool in the word processor) to highlight everything that was researched. For narrative-heavy stories (that is, fiction or nonfiction with a plot), this shouldn’t be too much nor too often, and with non-fiction without a narrative this should be more often.
Joanna Penn puts a list of her resources and the research she’s done in the back of her books. I really like this idea, and so I’m going to start adding my resources to the ends of my posts. Each one of these sites had a lot of great information and insight into the process, and I highly encourage you to take a look at each one. I might one day put these in an actual MLA-type format, but for now you’re just getting the links. My least favorite part of school was trying to figure out how to properly format it all.
Sarah Gribble, The Write Practice: https://thewritepractice.com/research-book/
Joanna Penn, The Creative Penn: https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2017/01/18/research-a-novel/
Jake Wolff, Literary Hub: https://lithub.com/on-the-fine-art-of-researching-for-fiction/
I didn’t directly reference any of the following sites, but I did use them for putting together the new process. They have some insight on how to do some aspects of researching itself, which I will write more on later.
Kristen Kieffer, well-storied.: https://www.well-storied.com/blog/cut-crap-research-novel-effectively
North Hennepin Community College Library: https://www.nhcc.edu/student-resources/library/doinglibraryresearch/basic-steps-in-the-research-process
The above link also has information on determining if a source is good or not. That is definitely something I will need to write about as well).
Do you have any tips to share on researching before you write? Do you have any problems with this not addressed here? Please share in the comments!