Ask the Editor: How Much Research is too Much?

Dear Alex,
Is it possible to do too much research for a novel? I want my story to be as realistic as possible, so I keep stopping to do research, and I end up going down rabbit holes and spending all my precious writing time just getting my basic facts right. How do professional writers do it? There aren’t enough hours in the day to learn everything I need to know to write this book and also write the book.

–Wendell

Hi Wendell!

One of the best things about being a writer is that you get to learn so many interesting things. You can study the history of photography, or French baking styles, or starship propulsion technology, or Celtic swords. You’re not just learning these things for fun, but because it’s your job, which is actually very cool.

Some genres rely heavily on facts. If you’re writing a thriller and you get your guns mixed up, you’ll lose readers. If you’re writing historical fiction, you need to know about dresses, meals, and carriages. If you’re writing fantasy, you’ll need to get your swords correct, and also research things like horses and boats.

Readers of genre fiction are passionate about the details and they will savage you if you get them wrong. Even contemporary novels will often deal with areas outside your expertise. Is your heroine a musician? You’ll have to know (or learn) about musical notation, performance venues, and artist management. Is your hero a barista? You’d better know the difference between a cappuccino and a latte.

The danger is when writers start to think of the research as an end in itself. You think you need to read just one more article, or buy one more book, or travel to one more place, and then you’ll be able to write your novel. It seems very efficient to do all the research up front and then go write, but this always backfires.

For one thing, this is a spectacular form of procrastination. The research feels like a necessary step, and it takes forever, and you’ll convince yourself that you’re making progress. It’s a little trick our brains use to fool us into thinking we’re working without actually doing the harder and scarier job of making up a story.

And you’ll most likely research the wrong thing. Since you haven’t written any of your story yet, you don’t know what you’ll need. You could do hours and hours of research into the dresses that upper-class women wore in the Regency period, only to decide later that your heroine is a middle-class merchant’s daughter, and therefore needs to dress completely differently.

But the biggest danger is that you’ll end up with a very developed world and no story to tell in it. This is a hard problem to diagnose because all of these facts are fascinating to you, the author. You might be riveted when reading back your own work because you love these details you dug up. But when a reader reads it, she’s bored because you’re talking about places and objects, and she just wants to get on with the story. Remember, story is always about conflict between people.

You need to have a deep understanding of your story and also a deep understanding of how much detail your audience expects. How much detail do you actually need at this moment? Enough to immerse the reader in the story world but not so much that she gets bogged down. It’s a tricky balance.

The best way to find this sweet spot is to write the scene (or the chapter, or the section) first and then go research what you need. When you’re writing, and you get to the part where you have to put in the name of a carriage, or what kind of coffee the barista is making, you put in a placeholder. I like to make mine all caps and in a bright font, like red or orange. That way, I can easily find them later. Like this:

Rebecca carried her violin case into NAME OF ORCHESTRA HALL IN ANN ARBOR and greeted the conductor and the concertmaster. She couldn’t believe she’d be playing in front of an audience of NUMBER tonight, and she was so nervous she thought she might puke.

Later, you’d go back and research what the venue for classical music is in Ann Arbor and how many seats it holds. I just did that. It took about 20 seconds.

Rebecca carried her violin case into Hill Auditorium and greeted the conductor and the concertmaster. She couldn’t believe she’d be playing in front of an audience of 3500 tonight, and she was so nervous she thought she might puke.

If you stop every few sentences to look up this fact or that fact, you’ll constantly be pulling yourself out of the story. However, by using placeholders, you won’t lose your forward momentum. This will also teach your brain that there is a time for writing and there is a time for research, and the writing comes first.

There will be times when you’ll have to set aside the writing to go on a longer research quest, either because the fact you need isn’t readily available or the ideas are too complex for a one-click Google. In that case, you’ll have to set aside some time to find the facts you need. But put boundaries on it so you don’t spend all your time researching. Learn new things, then apply what you’ve learned to your manuscript, using placeholders to stand for any gap in your knowledge. You’ll fill in some of those placeholders in your next draft, and more in the draft after that, until your book is a seamless whole. And you’ll do it by spending more time on your story, and less in rabbit holes.

Keep writing, you’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor and the author of two books of writing instruction: The Big-Picture Revision Checklist and No Hero Wants to Save the World.

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