Research: Where Does it Fit Into the Writing Process?
Research is one of those parts of the writing process that nobody thinks about. Nobody, that is, except writers. It’s so essential but equally under-mentioned when talking about fiction writing. And that’s understandable. Non-fiction writing obviously requires extensive research so you can accurately describe a phenomenon or event. Fiction, on the other hand, is completely made up. Right?
Wrong. And research isn’t specific to historical and science fiction alone either. Every genre requires some amount of research to make the story, setting, and characters believable.
Importance of Research
Basing aspects of your novel in the real world ensures consistency and gives your reader the ability to imagine the world you describe. It also makes it easier for you to know whether something is reasonable.
For instance, let’s say you’re planning a government structure for a speculative fiction novel. You could try to create a system of your own, or you could look at the different types of republics, democracies, monarchies, anarchies, etc. and draw inspiration from those. You don’t have to copy the exact titles and responsibilities of the people in an existing government system, but having a foundation to edit according to your story’s needs can help you decide whether that government structure is reasonable. Also, your reader will require less time and energy to understand a system that they have heard of before, giving them more time to focus on the actual story.
Accuracy also helps you ensure you’re getting the right message across. It’s often important, for example, to include people of different cultures and ethnicities in your story to make it more realistic and representative of your wide audience. However, while writing about a character different from you, you always run the risk of relying on negative stereotypes or portraying a community inaccurately. Taking steps (like researching) to avoid these can help you avoid these risks and become a more informed member of your community.
Knowing that you have to research is important, but it’s just as important to know how to do it well. The last thing you want to do is spend hours researching a topic only to gain and implement the wrong information.
This is why it’s essential that you use reliable sources. Look carefully at the author’s credentials and qualifications for writing about this topic. A biology professor writing about weapons in medieval China should raise a few eyebrows. On the same note, a high school student’s physics blog may not be reliable. Also consider the website you are getting your information from. Don’t trust the article without going to the homepage of the source website and analyzing its contents. Does the website typically publish articles relating to this subject? Who writes for and edits the content posted? Frequent typos or random articles from unrelated topics might be a sign to stay away from a particular website.
Of course, it’s really easy to get information from a website like Wikipedia because they have an article on everything. Should you just avoid it altogether? Not necessarily. You can use Wikipedia to get a quick answer and then verify the information you learned from other sites. Just be careful about trusting unverified information from suspicious websites or others.
Another often overlooked method of research is talking to people. When writing about some obscure subject, talking to a professional in the field can help you better understand what you’re writing about. See if you can sit in on a presentation or Q&A session. Additionally, you can and should talk to people from similar backgrounds to your characters to understand their lifestyle and judge whether you are representing different groups of people well.
When to Research
Generally, researching before you start your first draft is important but shouldn’t result in you procrastinating the first chapter of your novel.
Instead, decide what aspects of your story are most important and require you to do your research beforehand. For instance, research the overall atmosphere of your setting and the personality traits of your characters. Don’t waste time looking at things you think you might need.
Leave those for when you’re revising. After your first draft, think about the things you were unsure of when writing and look those up. Do the same after each draft as necessary.
Like all other parts of the writing process, your research method and timeline is flexible and should reflect what is most effective for you. The above method allows you to make the most of your time researching, but there are many other ways you can accomplish the same goal.
Most writers (myself included) do research in one of two extremes: not at all or for hours at a time. It’s tempting to click on the suggested links or to read the same information written in different ways on different websites. After all, it’s not every day that you study the different types of medieval weapons or research the Egyptian God of Moon.
However, allowing yourself to jump from link to link and spend hours reading articles that really aren’t going to help you with your writing can distract you from your WIP. The time you allotted to write might be spent watching videos instead, resulting in a lack of productivity and you falling behind in your writing goals.
To avoid this, you should find a researching method that works for you. As outlined above, set a timeline for yourself detailing when you’re going to research different aspects of writing. Another thing you can do is promise yourself that you will stop researching once you get the answer to the question(s) you need. Of course, this only works if you adhere to that promise.
The point of this isn’t to take the fun out of writing, and research can be one of the most exciting aspects of writing if you love to learn. Feel free to set aside days dedicated to research “for your writing,” even if you are never going to use half the information you learn. Just avoid spending an entire writing session researching.
Overall, research helps you develop and portray a realistic and relatable story. Learning how to research well and effectively can improve your writing skills and make your story more believable, thereby improving your reader’s experience.