Advice for writers about research

Research is an important part of the writing process for authors of fiction and nonfiction.

A few of you out there may be wondering why fiction writers need to do research at all. Can’t they just make everything up? Research is important for world-building, storytelling, detail, and inspiration whether you are writing about the past, present, or future, whether your characters are living on earth or on an alien world, or whether they are using magic or technology. 

My advice for writers about research:

  • You don’t need to know everything about a subject in order to write about it. Think about what you really need to know, why you need to know it, and what you can just make up.
  • Do not wait until you have done all of your research to begin writing. Writing and research should be interconnected, and each should fuel the other.
  • Don’t become obsessed with details that aren’t important to anyone but you, but take the time to confirm the accuracy of information you do use so you can avoid obvious bloopers and preventable errors. 
  • Allow the research to lead you in unexpected directions. If you find out something that conflicts with your plans, don’t view it as an obstacle, figure out how to use it.
  • When writing, don’t stop if you are missing details. Mark the spot, keep writing, and go back and fill it in later.
  • Don’t put everything you know into your writing. Backstory and worldbuilding are great, but don’t put it all in the finished work. Avoid data dumps. To quote Ernest Hemingway, “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If the writer omits something because he doesn’t know it, then there is a hole in the story.”
  • Know when to stop– don’t let research interfere with your writing.
  • Be open to serendipity, and allow yourself to discover information in unlikely places.

11 responses to “Advice for writers about research

  1. Mm, I must try your idea of interconnecting research and writing. In the past, I have tended to research with all my might, then sit down comfortably to write.

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  5. There is a self-monitoring component as well. If I find myself trying to find out everything about a subject, I typically go back and narrow the topic (even if I need to break a piece into modules) until I can focus on answering specific questions.

  6. I tend to research something to death before writing–any hints on how to break out of the mentality that you can’t write until it’s all researched?

  7. Hi Lisa,

    I just found this site through Kelley Eskridge’s blog. I’m thrilled.

    We met at WisCon a couple years ago and I fully intended contacting you regarding a project I subsequently finished, though I’m sure the research I did might have been done a bit more easily. However, should the book sell, it will become a series, and I may be making use of your services. Drop me a line when you get a moment.

    Anyway, all this is excellent advice, to which I would add that if you are contacting historians about something, keep track of how many of them say “I don’t know.” If the experts don’t seem to know something and you are forced to make something up, this little tally can be a confidence builder. 🙂

    But more seriously, if you then find that something out, call these people back and tell them. They’ll be appreciative (mostly) which may be useful in the future.

  8. Wonderful advice! I’ve bookmarked this site for future reference. Thanks.

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  11. Pingback: Research: What Do You Need & How Do You Find It « Becky Levine