Please welcome guest contributor Jeanne Kisacky to WU. Scholar and architectural historian, Jeanne was a finalist in our search for our unpubbed contributor, and we thought her essay was fantastic.
Jeanne tells us “I’m a recovering architect (anyone interested in joining the charter chapter of Architects Anonymous, please contact me); and an escaped editor. For the next nine months I’m a chained-to-the-desk nonfiction writer (I hate deadlines). But when the chains are removed and the recovery is over, I will return to my epic novel. When I do, I resolve to stop writing like Salieri. The composition of “Too Many Words” is going to meet, and learn to fear, the red pen.”
So she knows a thing or two about research-aholism. Thanks for sharing with us, Jeanne. Enjoy!
Since most writers are readers, research is one of the joys of the profession. Research is also crucial to good writing–it provides necessary details for writers to write convincing, resonant, accurate scenes. It fuels creative thought. While you research the details of your topic, some deep part of your psyche is figuring out how to use those details in your story.
There is, however, a dark side to research. Like watching TV, it is a passive activity. And, like TV, sometimes it is hard to stop the sitting and start the doing. As the information piles up on your desktop and in your brain, it becomes overwhelming. Doubts creep in about how to finish the darned thing that is now so big it’s out of your control. You’ve become a researchaholic.
The only cure is to put writing back into its proper place. Until you put pen to paper (or fingers to computer keyboard), you just don’t know what it is you need to know. Writing provides the questions; research provides the answers. Without a question, research mostly provides irrelevant answers (all those little research tidbits that live on sticky notes and scraps of paper). Without a question, research can also pull you in different directions, away from your intended storyline. Computer research is almost impossible to keep on course–it is non-linear, each link you click takes you in a different direction and to a different place. How do you keep focused on your story’s needs when getting lost on the web is so much easier?
At best, writing and research happen in regular alternation, with writing, not research, driving the train. Putting writing first puts you, the writer, back into the active, controlling role. Before you sit down for a week-long read of that pile of books you just checked out from the library or before you sit for weeks on end googling all around your topic, first write the bare bones, outline, or crappy first draft of whatever scene in your head made you think you needed to do some research. Sure, it will be inaccurate. Sure, it will be incomplete and need rewriting. But it will be your voice, your thoughts, your story. Then when you do some research, you’ll have some good focused questions and the answers you need will jump out at you. When you take those answers back to that scene you were writing and add in the pertinent details, you might also be tempted to keep writing and start some new scenes inspired by all that research.
Putting writing first will also help you avoid one of the lesser known time-wastes of research. It can take a lot of time to write your way ‘out’ of your research and back into your own thoughts. I’ve read way too many student papers which are pages of dry jumbles of their research notes with one final paragraph that finally (Finally!) gets around to saying what they want to say, not reiterating the research. In the end, research gives you all the details, but until you start writing, in your own words and thoughts, it doesn’t get you anywhere.