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Research Vs Writing

I have always been an avid admirer of writers who manage to keep multiple balls in the air at once. They manage new work on one manuscript with research on the next project running at the same time, perhaps with editing of the last manuscript (or two) on the sidelines.

I’ve never been able to do that. I am a great finisher, but getting started on anything is always the hard part for me. I need to build up a substantial head of steam to break the ice on any new project.

That’s the reason why when I am in the very beginnings of a new project, the story research is just about as much as I can manage to squeeze into my brain. This is really just fuel for the formation of the storyline (which I create in a fair amount of detail) and the broader canvass of the world and characters. Every new research direction (very much driven by intuition) is compared against some intangible sense for what the story will be. Then it is either expanded on or discarded. Once in a while I ‘break through’ and major piece of the story puzzle falls into place, inspired by that leap-frogging from research fragment to fragment.

So – is this research writing? It is part of my process. It is crucial to the formation of the story – which I need to have ‘front-loaded’ into my brain before the words begin to flow – yet it is not actual ‘words on a page’.

I guess I’m trying to make myself feel better for this huge chunk of time when I don’t actually write anything other than story notes – while the compelling voices in the wilderness continue cry ‘you must write, write, write!’

So what do you think about the research-writing spectrum? Does research qualify as writing? Or am I just a slack writer who can’t multi-task?

PS: Thanks to everyone who entered The Calvanni giveaway. The winners have been selected by Goodreads and the books will be on their way in the next couple of weeks. We had two winners from the USA, one from Canada, one from the UK and another for India. Congrats!


  1. Jim McCoy #

    I’d say that research definitely counts as writing, especially if you’re like me and constantly take note. I mean, you’re writing your notes down right? I also agree that it can help you advance your story and that one little nugget that you dug up can just fit sometimes and fix that little problem you’re having. It’s a great process when it works right. I sometimes have to apply a light round of extra-cranial percussive therapy with a book (Always use a college math or science book for this. The covers are thick and squishy and absorb the shock. Hitting yourself in the head with a paperback is tantamount to suicide. I almost did this with a David Weber novel once. I had visions of waking up days later with no idea who I was.) but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else. And, for heaven’s sake if someone out there steals my method, DON’T DO IT HARD ENOUGH TO HURT YOURSELF. It’s just to get out some frustration while simultaneously shaking your ideas around hoping they’ll match up to each other. Crazy? Yes. You do know I’m a writer, right?

    As someone who has a degree that he had to do a TON of writing for (BA in History. I had English and Journalism majors freak about how much _I_ had to write) this kind of came naturally to me after I realized how well it worked writing papers for classes. Yep research definitely equals inspiration when viewed properly.

    January 10, 2014
    • Hi, Jim. The value of percussive maintenance is not recognised – especially when applied to the odd computer screen or box:)

      I must remember to keep softer books around:) Most of mine seem to be hardback. . .

      January 10, 2014
  2. J.P. #

    Since research is necessary it has to count, but logging hours doesn’t necessarily (at least for me) result in progress, so researching is really tough to measure. How do you know if you are 50% done researching? How do you work out when adding words, story words, to paper will begin to be useful? (I have no idea.)

    January 10, 2014
    • Hi, JP. That’s a tough one. I do watch word counts when I am first-drafting, but I’ve never really thought about measuring progress for research.

      I have to admit it’s all instinct for me. The research is pretty much what I use to drive creation of the world and storyline, so at some point I guess I judge that complete enough to start putting words on a page. While I’m getting there, I don’t really think about where I am at. It’s more like I’m trying to scratch and itch I can’t reach – I’m more throwing myself into it rather than measuring progress.

      January 10, 2014
  3. I can’t multi-task in Real Life. Barely in Writing Life.

    How you manage a job, family time, and writing is amazing to me. That you keep the writing process simple is not a surprise.

    I have no job, due to an indulgent husband, and my kids have flown the nest. Even so, there is a limit to the “in progress” books that can be allowed, before it all tangles up and everything comes to a screeching halt until I reorganize and prioritize. I usually have several working projects up in the air at a time, but only one gets any significant amount of brain space, at a time, and I have to take a break when I switch in between them. And some of them _are_ the break. When the new words run dry, I can go check the format of the chapter headings in one that’s almost done, Or search for my usual errors. It’s its effect affect and whatever. Tasks suitable for a brain-fried writer, but also necessary.

    Research is either in a huge block of days, if not weeks, of obsessive reading, or five minutes on the internet. And of course it is part of the writing process, even if that isn’t obvious to everyone.

    January 10, 2014
    • Hi, Pam. Nice to see someone else focusses on one thing at a time:) Sounds like you have more things on the go at once though, even if they are mostly in a holding pattern. I’m pretty crap at that. Something that makes my work life difficult:) Managers always want you to work on multiple things.

      I don’t really have a choice with the research phase for writing though, it’s sort of the beginning of my process for getting the story sketched. Once I realised that, I’ve been viewing the whole process as ‘writing’ rather than just the first drafting, which is probably a quarter or less in terms of time spent.

      January 10, 2014
      • I’ve sort of evolved a conveyor belt system for books. But really, four of them at a time is the max.

        One in planning/research/original writing.

        Two, completed first draft, on the shelf to cool off, so I can read it with a fresh perspective in a month or two.

        Three, a completed manuscript out to my beta readers. This includes a Google doc they all have access to, and all mark all over. I’ll occasionally take a break from #1 to at least do something about the typos, and if the brain is cooperating, even deal with the large scale editing.

        The fourth book will be in preparation for publishing.

        Right now, I’ve just epubbed one, and barely started scrambling around for the next, so it’s generous to say I’ve got three “in the works.”

        January 10, 2014
  4. Synova #

    Research counts as writing. So does world creation and plotting and compiling name lists and drawing maps. Writing counts as writing.

    A person could do all the research and world building and never get the story written. OR a person could actually write and never get the story written either.

    It comes down to something being a problem when that something is a problem.

    If you know what I mean.

    January 10, 2014
    • Hi, Synova. Nicely put. It’s like that game – pick-up-sticks. You need all those different coloured sticks supporting each other, or everything tumbles down.

      January 10, 2014
  5. Story notes ARE writing – just because they will be modified before the final product is created, doesn’t mean they are not necessary words.

    A quick check of my files produced during the editing and revising of a recent chapter showed 24,200 words written in my support documents to 5200 words in the finished chapter. Since that includes only this phase of the book, there are probably far more words I’ve generated in getting this chapter finished. This doesn’t include the research words, which are many.

    That’s typical for me – I use paper/files for external RAM and CPU – my brain doesn’t work very well, but it gets the job done.

    The only advice is: do what you need to do to get the story you’ve decided to write done. And YMMV.

    I’ve stopped worrying about mine, though I keep looking for ways to become more efficient at it. If you could write without the research, you probably would have already done it.

    January 10, 2014
  6. Research time definitely counts as writing time. I genrally only do research as it comes up in the story (and then do better research in the second draft) but as long as it is working towads the end of the book it’s all good.

    January 10, 2014
    • Hi, Scott. Looks like the jury is in:) Research does count as writing:)

      I tend to try and do as much as can before I start – only because (typically) I like to concentrate on one ‘phase’ at a time & love to first draft continuously without having to break the flow.

      January 10, 2014
  7. TXRed #

    Well, I got paid to research and write a non-fic book, so I look at research as writing. That typed, I tend to research one thing while writing another, or to write until I hit a hole, make a note, move on if possible, go dig a little, and then return.

    January 10, 2014
    • Hi, TXRed. Congrats on the multi-tasking. Would it be true to say more of your research notes have a chance of direct incorporation into the final work for non-fic? Or do you tend to rework anyway?

      January 10, 2014
      • TXRed #

        Yes, I’d say 80% of the note material makes it into the non-fiction, in part because I do long-term climate pattern change analysis, plus I quote from meeting minutes, government hearings, that sort of thing. For fiction I’d say it’s closer to 30% of the material, because I’m looking for a general sense of the culture or time, rather than direct quotes. Two exceptions are the battles for “Vindobona” and “Boehm,” where I had the maps of the actual battles at hand and used those to describe the fictionalized events.

        January 10, 2014
        • Hi, TXRed. That’s a pretty good transfer rate. My own research hardly seems to make it directly, although it does inspire the story (for fiction).

          Interesting to hear you work in the Climate area. I worked in the Greenhouse field for quite a few years, more technology-based mitigation for industrial processes though.

          January 11, 2014
  8. Going to go a little against the consensus here: Research is research. Writing is writing. However, research counts as part of the creative process.

    It’s important – and depending on the book, can be very important. If you’re just going on a blind research expedition, there’s a point where it is no longer part of the creative process, however, and is just an excuse to delay writing.

    Some blind research is good – don’t get me wrong. There are some things you’ll pick up and drop into your mental box of bits and bobs to create your monster with. Or you’ll stumble upon the perfect piece that you end up building the monster around. But if you just keep filling boxes and boxes with parts without seeing how they’re going to fit together, it’s going to be either a mess of a monster or you’re just never going to start because starting means sorting through the bits and bobs and finding out which pieces are still viable. (And that can be a very stinky job.)

    Before my analogy runs amok…

    An example of my process: I’ve known I wanted to write for an anthology that’s due at the end of this month since…. late November? Early December? – something like that. I knew within a few minutes what sort of story I wanted to write. And since it’s fantasy that’s not based on the real world, there wasn’t any blind research I needed to do to get the background I’d need. I did, however, need to read more into confidence games since it’s going to involve a thieves guild and I didn’t want to base everything off of a combination of Leverage, Hustle, and a few relevant movies. Those writers, man. They don’t know something? They just make it up. The nerve! Well, I hemmed and hawed because the story wasn’t ready to be written. I had a basic idea of how the world worked but things just didn’t feel complete yet. So I let it sit and simmer in the back of my brain. Last night I said to myself, “Self? If you’re going to do this, you need to do more than let a vague idea sit around like a lump in the back of your head.” So I moved it to the front burner and stirred while I soaked in the tub and played some game on my Kindle. I wasn’t consciously thinking over it, exactly. But I looked at a peacock that was in the game and something clicked. Peacock. Perfect. The rest of the story fell into place over the next hour or so. I puttered around and let the ideas come to a boil and then took the story framework out of my head and into a text file. 1124 words, supposedly. Just of notes to myself. Not all the characters will end up in this story, nor will all the world-building notes.

    I count that towards my 1k minimum wordcount to make a stamp on my calendar for, “Having written today.” (I’m working with stamps on a calendar to keep me on-task for writing, arting, and working out.) If I decided that “research is writing” then I’d have a stamp just about every day. “Oh, I’m watching Buffy tonight because I need to be more familiar with the tropes of supernatural action shows for this project.” and “This period drama novel is similar in setting to that one story I want to write…” and “This game has ninjas. Ninjas show up in that story… It’s research! :D” I’d justify a lot of the things I do to goof off as “research”.

    But, you see, I rarely write physical notes for myself as I research. I tend to keep it all up in my head. If I wrote it out, I might count it towards “research”… Maybe. Probably I’d just divide the wordcount of the notes in half because I don’t really learn that way and so for me that’d just be a waste of time. Instead, it’s better for me to write down story notes that give me a rough sketch to work from. My research is closer to finding a photo reference for something I don’t know how to draw.

    On a related, but not directly on-topic subject…. I have many monsters in various stages of progress. The frustrating thing for me is I start to grow attached to them and want to “be better” before I finish the project. So I get a nice introductory chunk researched and written and then start working on a new one. I don’t have as much of a problem with my pen name. It’s not “me” and while I do enjoy the characters, they’re “not mine” so I can distance myself from them and finish. Planning on going through and finishing out some of these monsters this year before they get so old that I’d have to start again from the ground up to save them. (There are a couple of stories already at that point, sadly.)

    The last year two years or so as I’ve started self-publishing/taking writing seriously have taught me a lot about how I work and I’m still sorting out how to get myself to work more efficiently. It’s very frustrating.

    January 11, 2014
    • J.P. #

      I like the stamps idea. It seems useful. I’ve been keeping a journal where I list the number of words written each day and which project those words belong to. One of my goals this year is to “Write. A Lot.” so I’m trying to track my progress this way. I think I’ll be adding up my progress each month to create a total I can watch grow over the course of the year.

      January 11, 2014
      • The stamping process is very fun, really. I’m a collector by nature and fairly visual, so it rewards me on two levels. I’m “collecting stamps!” and I have specific stamp shapes and colors, so it looks nice when I have a green star stamp, a blue hatch stamp, and a red heart stamp marching along the month.

        If you consider a similar method, establish up front what qualifies, so you don’t let yourself mark off for something you don’t feel accomplished for doing. For example, I have to have 1k+ new words of fiction and/or notes to qualify for a stamp. If I go over 3k words, I can collect another stamp for the day.

        That’s for this month, though. Once it’s become an established habit, I’ll be upping my minimums for collecting the stamp. The idea is to just set the habit in the first place.

        January 12, 2014
    • Hi, CC. Long time to hear. Interesting to hear more about your process. Yes – research as procrastination is definately ouside the process. Fortunately I’m too impatient to waste my time:)

      January 11, 2014
      • I lurk – a lot. I always think I’ve commented more than I actually do. And I’ve been sickly off and on since November. If my family would just stop getting sick and sharing it with me…

        Yes – you’re very productive! I’d say I’m envious, but that’s a negative sort of thought. So, instead, I’ll just say I admire it!

        January 12, 2014
  9. I think whatever helps you get your story done “counts.” Is research “writing?” Maybe, maybe not. I understand the idea of writing everyday and that practice has increased my productivity when I actually sit down to do so, but many of us have day jobs/families and time spent on writing is many times often better spent on the other parts necessary to tell a good story.

    January 11, 2014
    • Hi, Phillip. I guess it’s truer to say research is part of the writing process, and often crucial.

      January 11, 2014
  10. 'nother Mike #

    A quick belated comment. As a project manager for software projects, one of the running arguments concerns “real work.” As in “can’t I skip this meeting and do some real work” or “I don’t want to write documentation and design, I want to do real work.” The problem is that especially for software projects, without the design, the arguments, the meetings, and all that other stuff, the software doesn’t work together. Which means it fails, and the projects crash and burn. So, yes, we demand software engineers spend time on design work, reviews, all that nasty other stuff besides their “real work.” In fact, we even keep track of all of the other work, usually in terms of hours, and have pretty good estimates of how much other stuff you need to do to make the “real work” successful. Project management takes up about 20% of most software projects.

    I think in writing we have a similar problem. We tend to call the process writing, along with the actual sitting down and putting words on paper or pixels. But that means research, outlining, plotting, revision, staring out the window, taking long walks, rotating cats, and other parts of the process often are considered not “real writing,” no matter how necessary they are to producing a good product.

    Lay out your process. Include the tasks in it that work for you. Don’t sweat too much which ones are “real writing” or “real work,” just make sure they get the job done. As I used to point out, no one looks at how you did it, they just want what you produce. So do it your way!

    January 15, 2014

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