We writers know that research is one of the real three rs, don’t we? It’s the foundation of everything we do. Therefore, you have to take it seriously and do all your research up front before you start writing. Because you can’t start writing if you don’t understand your subject.
Alas, no. If you happen to agree with the statement above, you’re probably a research-based procrastinator. And I’m here with the cure.
Research-based procrastination is a widespread yet little acknowledged condition. Its sufferers—people like you, if I may be so bold—labour under the delusion that they’re just being thorough. Rigorous, even. So I offer this post in the spirit of what our transatlantic cousins term an intervention.
Research for writing is a catch 22 situation. You’re not researching effectively if you’re not writing at the same time. Because if you’re not getting your thoughts down on paper, you’re not really thinking. You’re ruminating.
Let’s face it, ruminations by their very nature cover the same ground ad infinitum. If you keep ‘researching’ but not writing, you’ll be stuck until your looming deadline scares you out of the cycle, and sometimes not even then. Better to force yourself out of your rut at an early stage rather than keep digging until it’s too deep to see over the top.
- Don’t write notes, write drafts. If you’re like me, you take notes as part of the process of understanding a subject. The trick is to view these notes as not a preparatory outline, but as a first draft. So type as though you’re explaining your topic to a friend. Make comments and asides, because these might be useful later when it comes to injecting a critical evaluation into the piece.
- Make each draft do different work. So your first draft is probably focused on getting to understand the basic principles of the thing you’re writing about. The second draft might be aimed at comprehending the various strengths and weaknesses of the ideas. And the third draft could be devoted to making your own opinions known. Each time round, you’re going over what you’ve written before and expanding or improving upon it in a specific way. And because you’re thinking through writing, each different writing cycle will reflect a different research cycle.
- Don’t do more research than is necessary to write the piece in hand. If you’re writing an undergraduate essay, for example, you’re wasting time by trying to research at PhD level. Be very clear what you need to say about the subject, and say it in the right amount of words. The word count is usually a good guide to the depth of research and thinking required. So once you hit your word count, stop.
- If you want to understand something, don’t ever copy and paste information about it from a source document. Always type it in your own words. Remember, you’re thinking by writing, and the mindless process of copy and paste won’t engage your brain at all.
If you suspect you’re using research as a way of putting off actually doing any writing, you’re probably correct. The harsh reality is that you’ll need to put pen to paper some time, and the time might as well be now. So stop procrastinating and start researching.