Advice for Young Writers: Research or Procrastination?

Today’s advice is to learn the difference between research and procrastination. Now, if you’re a nonfiction writer who writes about true things that exist or occur, you absolutely need to do your research. But if you’re a fiction writer who makes stuff up, and you think you need to do research before you start a project, wait. Let’s say you’re setting a story in the US in the 1920s, but you don’t know anything about that era. Or you have an idea about a marine biologist who talks to whales, but you don’t know anything about marine biology. These sound like valid reasons to do research. But researching without focus is stepping into quicksand, Because how much do you need to know about the 1920s? Do you need the politics, the technology, the fashion, the slang, the social customs, all of it? How much do you need to know about marine biology? Do you need to understand a whale’s digestive system? So you don’t start with research. You start with writing. Only by writing do you begin to discover exactly which details you need. For instance, how did people get across the country without airplanes in the 1920s? Or, are whales studied in labs or in the open ocean? So you write to find out exactly which details you need, and then you go straight for that particular information, and you just skip over the mating habits of hammerhead sharks. Here are the risks of doing too much research. You feel productive when you’re doing research, but you’re not actually writing any words down. You’re giving yourself credit because you’re working, but the risk is that you never start writing. You also risk coming across a project that you feel is similar to yours, and having that stop you dead in your tracks. Or you might see how much has already been written about a subject, and then your thing feels less important to write. Another risk is that you leave yourself open to subconsciously using other people’s words and ideas instead of your own. Research is a tool, but it can also be a trap. Remember, the only thing that gets the writing done is writing.

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