Geetanjali Mukherjee

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Avoiding The Research Trap


Creating something out of thin air can be nerve-wracking, and one of the ways we try to subconsciously avoid this is by doing what Cal Newport calls "pseudo-work". While he refers to this in the context of studying, we creative professionals can recognize that this is akin to hiding behind the old excuse - "I need to do some more research".

Don't get me wrong - there is nothing wrong with research. One of my hats is that of writing academic-style papers and books, and those are founded on solid research. However, precisely because research is so important in such projects, it is very difficult to know when enough is enough, and to stop doing research and get down to actually writing. Even in non-academic work, such as fiction, writers are sometimes tempted to read ever-more interesting, but irrelevant books on the types of wines served at the table of Swedish kings in the 18th century, when it is not really pertinent to the story at hand. Anything to avoid figuring out how the princess and the stable boy actually get past the guards to elope.

I have been facing this problem in my current WIP. It's going very slowly, which has been very frustrating. When trying to brainstorm ways to move it along faster and figure out why its stalling, I started to trace out the time spent on it so far. The book is actually an adaptation of my master's thesis, so theoretically I have already done the important research already. Why then is it still taking so long?

And then it hit me - I spent a whole month or so between April and May working on this project - which should have significantly moved it forward and got me far closer to finishing. Except that in that whole time - I did not write a single word. That's right - not one word. I did a lot of research - and I read through it all with highlighters - and I even copied out the relevant quotes. What I didn't do was add even a word of that to my manuscript. I did move paragraphs around - broke it up into chapters, reorganised it and moved the chapters around again. All that took a lot of time and I really thought I was working. Except it was pseudo-work - none of it got me any closer to a finished book.

Although I hadn't realised this, I figured out earlier this month when I got back to this (I had started working on something else in the middle) that I had to either complete it or decide to let go of the project. Doggedly not wanting to let go, completion was my only option. And I started to work on adding new writing to the WIP.

To see how much I was actually getting done, I kept a simple table in a note in Evernote - with the starting and ending words of the day. It soon became a little game with myself - to add more words than the day before - although many days I only progressed a little bit. Sometimes that frustrated me - and I wishing it would move much faster. Until that is that I realized - even adding 500 more words that day was more than I had done when I was just doing research and nothing else. At least now I was writing - some of it might be edited out, but it was progress. I wasn't deluding myself about working when I wasn't.

It's actually really easy to fall into the research trap without even realizing it. Even now, everyday I ask myself if I really need to add in any more to the current section. I know how easy it to say, but I must add in this one more fact, and then I must find that other report to corroborate it. At one point just last week I found myself chasing up obscure journal articles online, one after another, down research rabbit holes. As soon as I realized this - I set a time limit - that I would not spend more than 2 days on a section at most. Having the table showing me clearly how much progress I am making, and how many days I am spending on each section, keeps me semi-accountable. Which is one of the main benefits of tracking important metrics, something I am learning the hard way.

Is there a project in which you are unwittingly falling into the research trap?

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