Earlier this weekend while I was getting ready to work on some edits I ended up knee-deep in research on how long a racehorse’s career lasts. How did I end up there? Simple, I started by needing to know how fast a horse could actually run, which lead me to wondering how long horses typically live, which then lead me to wondering how long a horse’s career is, which lead me to the racehorse’s career. By the time I realized it, I was miles away from what I actually needed to know: How fast can a horse run? (The answer, if you’re wondering, is about 40 kilometers/30 mph on average).
Chances are also pretty good that you’ve either been sucked down the research rabbit hole, or you know someone who has been. It’s a hazard of the writer’s job. One interesting fact leads to another, which leads to another and that drags both focus and productivity down. Once we recognize it, we’re not only badly distracted, we may have forgotten what we needed in the first place.
Research is an absolutely vital tool, but like any other tool, it helps to know how to use it and how to prevent it from ruining our time.
Define what you need. This is a pretty simple and easy to do thing. Figure out what you need to know. This prevents you from completely jumping topics. If you need a broad overview of a topic, then set aside time to do some basic research and write down specific questions you need to research further.
Make notes. You won’t remember everything, so once you’ve defined your specifics, make notes on those specifics. This also gives you something to refer back to as you write. Write down any other questions that come up but try not to jump onto tangents.
Use time appropriately. If you’re just starting a broad topic, then set aside time specifically for that. Mixing writing time and researching time isn’t a good idea when you need to teach yourself about an entirely new topic. That said, a quick question (such as how fast can a horse run) shouldn’t take you that long to research if you know exactly what you need and can search for it specifically. If you’re checking a fast fact, try to limit the amount of time you spend digging for the answer. For me that’s usually about fifteen minutes. If your time runs up and you’re still not sure, make a note on your draft to check it more extensively later.
Early drafts are for errors. By that, I mean you don’t need to have every single detail before you put words to the page. A basic understanding of your topic is usually good enough for your rough draft as you’ll come across story-specific details that will need further research. If you need to change the temperature reading of your about-to-explode-rocket-fuel at some point, you can do it after you’ve gotten the basic story down.