Thursday, September 25, 2008

Out of the spin cycle: Balance between research and writing

I met with a woman who had researched a subject for two years, and was trying to get up the energy to begin drafting her manuscript. She sighed and looked at the pile of books in her bag -- "I'm at a distance from much of the early research. I was halfway through a book this week before I realized that I already read it back in 2006, and simply forgot."

Many academic authors come to me caught in this interesting spin-cycle of research and note-taking. This period can last for many months or even years, and some authors never leave it. I know of at least one project that was in the research phase for over twenty years! The resulting lovely book went on to win a Pulitzer, so the effort wasn't wasted, but those of us who know the story well also understand that it didn't have to take that long. And yes, like the woman above, the author probably forgot much of the early research and had to re-trace his steps a few times.

Some authors strike a productive balance between research and writing. Many focus on one aspect of the book at a time (this requires discipline, because it means not reading everything else that comes to hand, and not checking out every possible book on the larger topic, but noting them on lists for later). They then they write up the research on just that bit, even if they know it will change later.

Meanwhile, some of those who get stuck in the research phase also become overwhelmed by potential sources, and a few express fear at the notion of having to change anything after writing it. They don't want to step out of the research phase long enough to write because they dread learning something new that will overturn their conclusions. But why? They're just words on paper. You can change them. Promise yourself that you will change them if you learn something new, but if you're stuck in the spin cycle, try writing your research up in tiny-bit text form anyway. Not only will you make steady progress, but you'll have the luxury of drafting your book while you're still fresh on each source. This is also a great plagiarism prevention device, because it's easier to check and make sure you didn't inadvertently copy anything without attribution.

Writing bits of actual text as you go and paying meticulous attention to the notes will yield something amazing -- a book that grows bit by bit, organically, rather than being rushed along in a too-fast writing phase. This can potentially yield text that has more depth, richness, and character.

Image of Ukraine’s Central State Historical Archives in L’viv borrowed from


Sandra Carrington-Smith said...

In my experience, I have found that it is easier for me to draft what I already know, before indulging in research. Once the first layout is ready, it becomes apparent what type of extra research is needed. Great post!

maitresse said...

such good advice, thank you, esp as I am trying to take the plunge and start chapter one of my dissertation-- obviously I've done tons of reading and know what I want to say but am putting off writing because hey, I still need to do more research!