When Does Research End And Writing Begin?

I use Grammarly for English proofreading because as a professional copy editor, I have learned that everyone makes mistakes. Everyone, including me.

Recently I’ve encountered the question “when does research end and writing begin?” popping up all over the place. My fellow writers struggle with it while working on book manuscripts, and get a variety of professional advice. One friend, working on the downfall of a 1970s commune in Vermont went to get her editor’s blessing to stop doing interviews and start writing. She got it, but she ignored it and kept researching. Another is working with an agent on a book proposal—that is, the thing you have to write in order to sell publishers on your idea and thereby get the money and time to actually research and write it—and her agent keeps sending her back into the field to revise that sample chapter one more time.

I am also teaching a creative nonfiction class online for adult students, most of whom are successful professionals who’ve never had a creative writing outlet before. One woman was working on a memoir of an incident that happened to her father, an African-American doctor, in the 1940s. She had piles and piles of his writing to go through, and lots to learn about medicine in the time period, but she was stuck on the writing part. I was happy to hear that an assignment I gave her for the class, to use dialogue in a real-life scene, got her writing about her long-deceased father in a new way: by talking to his still-surviving sister.

All my City University of New York students struggle mightily with the parallel timelines of writing and research. I often have to reassure those writing the traditional 5-paragraph essay that it is perfectly acceptable, in fact wise, to write the introduction last. After you’ve worked your way through researching the body paragraphs and conclusion, you’ve figured out what should go at the beginning. But it’s hard to give the same advice to the honors thesis writers who are staring down the barrel of their first 30-page paper. How do you know what you’re going to have to say about your topic until you’ve read everything there is to read? But how are you going to have time to read everything there is to read before your thesis is due next May?

Generally speaking, I’m in favor of starting the writing part sooner rather than later. I find it helps me process whatever I’m reading in a more efficient way than just scrawling notes in the margins. I also find that both myself and my students often know more than we think we know about the topic before we begin.  We know enough, anyway, to know what we think about the text, or topic, or thesis. It just takes a certain amount of guts to write an outline or an introduction without citing any sources.  Doing this does, however, give you a to-do list for your reading, a plan. Since you can’t ever read everything there is to read anyway, at a certain point you have to focus on reading that will be directly useful to the story you want to tell. Not that this is easy.

The wonderful author Rebecca Skloot, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning work of nonfiction The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks filmed a short video where she shows you all the research materials she had to go through simply to be able to recreate the one all-important line of dialogue in the first paragraph of the first chapter. She verified what kind of car was driven to the hospital, what the hospital looked like, who would have greeted the African-American Henrietta Lacks, and cross-referenced what Henrietta said to her relatives about her condition before she died…all for one paragraph.

But you have to do it. Once the book finally comes out, you will be subject to any number of critics, fact-checkers, nit-pickers, and just plain opinionated readers, and you need to be able to recreate your paper (or, more likely, digital data) trail. New information will inevitably come to light after your book is out in the world. A magazine that published an after-release excerpt of my book was able to find a whole cache of photographs of the Florida lawyer who claimed Eden was in the Panhandle, photos which hadn’t yet been available when I was researching that chapter. And when my book came out in paper, I got the chance to make discreet changes and updates.

For some writers, the research process goes on even longer than that. Consider the blockbuster nonfictioner Jon Krakauer, whose classic Into the Wild was first published in 1996, and made into a movie in 2007. All this time, as Krakauer recently revealed on The New Yorker’s blog, he has been testing hypotheses for how the book’s main character, Chris McCandless, actually died, a subject crucial to how people feel about him. Was he a naïve city kid who didn’t respect the wilderness enough? Or was he, as he seemed to hint in his last journal entry, felled by an obscure poison berry that wasn’t in any of the guidebooks? After years of searching, Krakauer finally found scientific proof that McCandless had indeed died of poison. It’s a marvelous example of writerly dedication, and loyalty. So the answer to when does research end and writing begin? Never, and always, again and again.

2 Responses to When Does Research End And Writing Begin?

  1. RPS says:

    But how are you going to have time to read everything there is to read before your thesis is due next May?

    You seem to be correct that the answer is to take a break from reading, even with so many months available, and start writing. I recently read an interesting book called Scarcity; in a section near the end, “The Problem of Abundance,” the authors point out that “The crunch just before deadline often originates with ample time used ineffectively in the weeks preceding it… [One] way to fight the abundance-then-scarcity cycle is to even it out – to create long periods of moderation rather than spurts of abundance followed by heightened periods of scarcity…”

    • Brook says:

      Thanks, RPS! (Who, dear readers should know, is the handle of Richard Sassaman, author of one of my favorite books ever, Bar Harbor Police Beat.) It is always nice to have one’s gut validated by science. I got the book Scarcity, and have been devouring it ever since. The authors contend that shortness of time, of money, of friends, etc, all produce similar psychological effects that we can mitigate with moderation. As a bonus, it’s very nicely written, in a non-Malcolm-Gladwell-esque clear, scientific way.

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