There is definitely such a thing as too much research. When you gather more information than you need, on topics beyond what you need to tell your story effectively, you zap all your energy for writing too soon. The mental energy that would have gone to crafting prose gets expended on the dimensions of medieval fortress hoardings.
I used to be the worst offender. As long as I was “busy” researching, I got to avoid the underlying problems that were sucking my well of creativity dry: my lack of confidence, my weak plot plans, shaky character voices, etc.
I had to be real with myself, and call out all the excuses I’d made, tangents I’d chased, and unproductive days I’d let slide.
These are 5 of the biggest challenges I faced as an over-researcher, and how I tackled each one.
Your info dumps contain info dumps.
Info dumps are a typical sign of weak writing, but the inception-level info dump is practically a masterpiece in its own rite. These are sections of prose that go into way too much detail, and then double down with details about the details. And maybe a few more details on top of that. Just to be safe, add a few more details. We’re on a tangent now, so let’s justify that with even more detail.
It starts out innocently enough. A writer describes the architecture of a medieval cathedral in order to ground his readers in the setting. And somewhere between the stained glass windows and the flying buttresses, there’s a whole paragraph about how the stones were cut, and another about the worker who died building the roof trusses, and his dog was left to wonder why he never came home, though the dog soon found a new home on a farm that grew peas according to a long-lost irrigation method and… who the hell cares?
You’ve forgotten what your story is about.
It started out a regency romance, and now it’s about a circus troupe in colonial America. Our research can take us to unexpected places, but occasionally we wander off the edge of the map and don’t know how to get home.
I used to let my secondary characters run wild when I was new to writing. Every time I paused to develop a secondary character or explore a side plot, it ended up taking over my writing for a few weeks — until it took up more page space than the main plot.
It’s often the case that you need to learn to write badly before you learn to write well. I produced some absolute garbage as a new writer, and 99% of the time, the turning point between decent and awful came when I lost sight of my original vision and chased a subplot.
I trained myself not to pursue every subplot like a dog chasing squirrels, but research was still a problem for me. Like subplots, I would often take things too far. Too much research, too much nebulously relevant detail, too much time taken away from actually writing.
It’s no wonder that after a while, I completely lost focus and had to back away from my drafts for a few months.
Your research runs the story.
At some point in the research process, you lost control of the reins. You’ve considered adding scenes or changing plot points just so you have a place to mention some fascinating fact you’ve learned. You’ve changed settings and time periods three times because you kept discovering something “better.”
Maybe you were spoiled for choice. Maybe you liked the idea of writing historical fiction more than you actually enjoy writing it. It doesn’t matter how you lost control of the story, just that the story needs to remain the paramount priority throughout the research and drafting process.
If you find yourself veering off into this territory, take some time to reconnect with your story. Remind yourself why you first felt inspired to write it, and hold that feeling with you as you gather information about the subject.
You’ve researched far beyond the natural boundaries of your outline.
Just before the release of 5 to 1, I had the opportunity to meet author Holly Bodger at a book blogger luncheon. She told us about her writing process, and how on a particularly rough day she spent 6+ hours researching cricket so that she could accurately write a single sentence from the perspective of a cricket-loving Indian teenager. She knew she’d gone too far that day, and that it was an example of how authors buckle under the temptation to get every detail exactly right. She knew that 6+ hours of research was overkill, and that 1-2 probably would have sufficed. Excessive, obsessive research tends to come from one of two places: avoiding the writing, or insecurity.
Sometimes we avoid our writing because we know that things just aren’t working the way they should. Some part of the story has taken a wrong turn, or your tone is wrong, or nothing is flowing that day. It doesn’t matter what problem you’re avoiding with research — it will still be there when you get back to writing.
Insecurity is the stumbling block for others; the fear of not being absolutely perfect drives them to research the stitch length 18th century tailors used to sew corsets. The question, What if someone notices a mistake in my story? takes over, choking out a writer’s confidence in their storytelling abilities. They chase details that nobody but a Ph.D.-level expert would notice.
The idea of turning all this research into a novel terrifies you.
You’ve reluctantly declared your research “done,” but now you’re facing down a different problem. You’re paralyzed by the volume of info in front of you, and can’t see a way to pare it down and shape it into a novel.
As a teenager I went on countless tangents trying to fit all the details into my stories. I didn’t know how to refine what I’d learned through research and relate only the details that the reader truly needed. I made the stories impossible to appreciate by cramming them full of useless crap that nobody but me cared about.
Maybe you haven’t reached that point yet; maybe you’re standing under a mountain of research, waiting for the inevitable avalanche to crush you and your story.
Step 1: grab an umbrella, in case the pile falls.
Step 2: let your outline stand between you and your filing cabinet’s worth of research.
Your outline is your guide through the drafting process. It’s a complicated list of things you need to accomplish in the telling of your story. If the items in your outline don’t call for a piece of information, there’s no reason for you to dig into that section of your research archive. By focusing on the bits you need, you’ll skirt around all the extraneous stuff you collected over the course of your research process.