Tips for Turning Online Procrastination Time into Writing Research Time

Wordle imagery -- "language," "scene," "fantasy," "beauty"Therese here. Today’s guest is someone who’s been a WU lurker for over a year and half: L.B. Gale. L.B. works as an educator–a literacy specialist–in New York City, and is an aspiring fantasy author who received her Master’s degree at the University of Chicago, focused on comparative mythology and fantasy literature. Her favorite novels are A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.

L.B. brings something unique to WU today in the form of in-depth tips for online research. We know you’re going to love them. Enjoy!

Tips for Turning Online Procrastination Time into Writing Research Time

As someone who has worked with educators for some time, I’ve learned how decent enough students react when assigned various types of writing.  The teacher says write a narrative and they hear “freedom.”  The teacher says write an essay and they hear “annoying but doable.”  The teacher says write a research paper and they hear “pain.”

And so it is for professional writers and aspiring writers alike.  Research means pain, but we must all be researchers if we are to write well.  In particular, a writer needs to be two varieties of researcher:

  1. The librarian.  This researcher gathers information on varied topics to add detail and texture to their narratives.
  2. The Self-Analyzer.  This researcher gathers information on their own writing to determine what next steps to take for improvement.

In education, the current trend is to find ways to teach students how to do boring things like research using exciting things like technology and the Internet.  I thought that it might be helpful to look at how some of the strategies I’ve seen used with students could be useful for creative writers.

Like students, we are all easily distracted when working.  Like students, we will procrastinate as much as possible.  Like students, we need bright shiny strategies to help us turn procrastination time into something useful.  Here are a few bright shiny strategies:

  1. Using Google’s “My Library” Feature to Research(for the Librarian)The Internet murdered the Book Index when it introduced the ability to search inside a text.  “My Library” takes this a step further and allows you to search inside multiple texts all at once.  If you want to find tons of information on a topic (historical, theoretical, scientific, or otherwise), you can group multiple texts together using “My Library” and search them to find pages of free and useful information all in one place.

    The Process: As long as you have a Google account, it’s extremely simple.  In Google Books, search for books related to the topic you want to research.  Modify your search to show only books that have a preview available (this function is on the left toolbar).  Then scan the results and for each relevant book click “Add to my library.”  Now when you navigate to “My Library” through the Google Books main page, you can use the “Search My Library” bar to find and read any page in all of the books from your library that relates to the topic at hand.

  2. Using Wordle (for the Self-Analyzer)Wordle is a great tool for visualizing the key words in a piece of writing.  By blocking out the most common English words (like “a,” “and,” “the,” etc.), Wordle allows you to create a visual map of the most used words in a text.  Though I see many bloggers use this tool to analyze other people’s writing, it can be a great tool for self-analysis.

    Take a look at this image I made of my recent blog posts.  I can see two things: I’m blogging too much about character development, and I should probably check if I’m overusing terms like “really,” “good,” and “just.”   You can use this for your creative writing to see what adjectives, dialogue tags, names, and so on you are overusing or aren’t using enough.  It also helps you to see if the theme you’re trying to emphasize is well represented by the key words in your story, or if you have gotten lost in subplots and tangents.

    The Process: Go to wordle.net, click on “Create your own” and paste the text of your latest work into the main area.  Wordle will then generate a word cloud of your most frequently used terms.  You can also view a simpler chart of the words you sorted by frequency if you click on the “Language” button and then “show word counts.”

  3. Using Google Documents for Survey Information(for both the Librarian and the Self-Analyst)One of the forms of research students are commonly asked to perform is the standard survey (the What’s your favorite ice cream flavor? project).  Rather than have students gather data on messy, easily lost paper, I’ve seen teachers teach students to use Google documents, which has a free survey tool that automatically gathers survey data into a spreadsheet.

    As the librarian researcher, I’ve used this to gather anecdotal information from friends or social network followers.  Let’s say I’m writing a scene where a character has an embarrassing thing happen to him, I might look for inspiration from stories that friends and acquaintances are willing to share.  I quickly make a Google Form Survey (“What was the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you?”), send it out, and see what responses I get.  You’d be surprised at how many people will fill out your form if it means not having to do real work.  Google translates the data into a spreadsheet, and voila! I have a huge chunk of life experience (in addition to my own) to add some texture to my scene.

    You can also use this as the self-analyst to create a kind of focus group.  Worried about a chapter or a scene?  Throw the text into a Google Form with some key questions and send it out to friends and acquaintances.  It’s anonymous, and they’ll give you frank, effective feedback (as long as your questions allow for it).

    The Process:  With your Google account, navigate to Google Docs, create a “Form,” and format it however you like (there are numerous question style options).  Then send the link to whomever you like (or embed it in your blog) and watch the results gather in the spreadsheet that automatically shows up in your Google Docs folder.

Though some say the only certainties in life are death and taxes, I know that for me, the third certainty is that Internet time=procrastination time.  However, I find that by working the above three Internet-based research strategies into my online procrastination time, I can not only get useful research information for my work in progress, but I can also get research done with very little pain.

Readers, you can learn more about L.B. on her website and blog HERE, and by following her on Twitter. Write on!

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Comments

  1. says

    These are some great resources — thanks! I’m getting to the point in my drafting when wordle will be helpful, and I’d forgotten what it was called. Although I must point out that not every writer hates research. It’s one of my favorite things to do, and can be a form of writing procrastination in and of itself.

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    • says

      You are certainly correct. The flip side of this whole notion is that one can enjoy research too much. I have found that sometimes I spend so much time researching a story idea that I’m doing just what you said: avoiding the actual writing of the story idea. Sometimes its just a bout of laziness, and sometimes it’s because the idea just doesn’t feel right. I guess learning that your story idea is better in theory than in practice is valuable research though!

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  2. says

    Wordle!

    A while ago, I used it to find out I used the word “away” way too much. These days, I make an effort to cut them out.

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  3. says

    I spend way too much time online sometimes. These tips are really great for making the most use of that time. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. says

    ‘The teacher says write a narrative and they hear “freedom.” The teacher says write an essay and they hear “annoying but doable.” The teacher says write a research paper and they hear “pain.”’

    Oh, yes. I have a university-enrolled daughter and am most familiar with this paradigm.

    I love Wordle but have never used the Google Library. Thank you for the tip.

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  5. says

    LB,
    Thanks for these great research tips. Research is an important part of the writing process, especially when there is a characer or story line involving a field or topic that the writer doesn’t understand in-depth. Anything that can save us time that we can then devote to writing is welcome advice. Thanks again.

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  6. says

    I’m with Natalie, I sometimes get too caught up in the research. And I have to be careful not to overindulge in what I’ve learned in the writing, too.

    Great tools and tips. I haven’t used the Google Library. Thanks L.B. (from a fellow former WU lurker).

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  7. says

    Totally stealing, er, BOOKMARKING this info. Especially the Google survey, I can think of a lot of other applications.

    Thanks so much for the great tips.

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    • says

      Steal away! The Google survey is an incredible tool. I don’t love Google Docs as a whole (formatting usually ends up being a problem), but the survey feature makes it extremely valuable to me. I’ve shown it to a lot of teachers that I mentor and they now use it to collect homework, since it time stamps when the students submit it and alphabetizes all their responses. This cuts down the time you waste in class on collection and sorting (and seeing who did and didn’t do it). So, as you said, there are lots of valuable applications.

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  8. says

    Thanks for the valuable tips including the suggestion on how to use Google Docs to get feedback from others. I’d heard of Wordle before, but hadn’t gotten around to trying it. I’ll do that later today because I know I have a tendency toward overusing ‘just’ and ‘really’ in my writing. Would love to see what other tendencies pop up.

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  9. says

    Research papers – ungh! My profs (I didn’t attend college until my 40’s) would laugh at my research papers – I’d hear “Um, Kathryn, if we’d have asked for a creative writing paper, you’d have an A, but since this is a research paper, you, well, are not going to receive an A . . .” Lawd. Story of my Research Life. :-D

    Now, though, the research I do isn’t so awful. Okay, it still sometimes can be awful because I’m unorganized.

    Now, perhaps I can use these tools to become Organized with that capital O –

    wondeful post!

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  10. says

    Great tips! Another cool thing is that more library resources are available online these days, and you can access them from anywhere as long as you have a library card. Very useful if you want very specialized or authoritative information. I actually wrote a post or two about doing library research on my own blog a while ago.

    I love the Wordle tool. It’s great for illuminating those words you use frequently without realizing it. Mine were “just” and “even”, and I’m much more conscious of them now.

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    • says

      Yes! I was lost for a little while once I graduated from college and no longer had access to the online resources of a university library. I was very happy to be able to access things like JSTOR and Project Muse through my public library card. Both are great for finding quick scholarly articles on research topics (when reading a book on one topic seems like overkill for what you need).

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  11. Shelley Schanfield says

    Fantastic tips. I’m heading out right now to check out the “My Library” tool. Thanks for the very useful and informative post.

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  12. says

    I just pasted the first chapter of my manuscript on the Wordle box and found out I use my characters names the most. Is that bad?? I don’t even know. Next are the words, Mother, Money and thought.

    I suddenly feel awful about everything I’ve written..

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    • says

      Darlene: I actually think thats a pretty good report! Nothing seems dire. Overusing character names is an easy fix. I’d look over the chapter and see if you constantly have other characters say the name of the person they are speaking to. If that’s so, you can cut a lot of those out. I find that I tend to write dialogue like that but I don’t actually repeatedly say the name of the person I’m speaking to.

      As for ‘thought,’ thats another easy fix. Use the ‘find’/search function in your word processor and replace or remove ‘thought’ if you think it’s being used too much. As for mother and money, I’d ask, are those thematically significant terms to your chapter? If they are, then don’t do a thing. If they aren’t, then you might want to search your document for each instance and use that to guide some editing.

      If you have already submitted the MS, I wouldn’t worry at all. There are *much* worse words to be overusing!

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