How to make researching less painful

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Do you make the mistake of trying to research WHILE you are writing? Make researching less painful by separating these two steps.

Does the following scenario sound familiar?…

You’re writing something that requires a great deal of research, and accuracy is paramount.. As a result, you have about a half dozen books or journals on your desk and a dozen files open on your computer.

You paw through the physical evidence on your desk seeking the right source and you juggle those important electronic sources as well. Finally, after significant kerfuffle, you write a sentence (of about 23 words) and you check your sources right away, to make sure that you’ve stated the facts correctly. Then you start working on the next sentence.

(BTW writing that first sentence might take you as much as five minutes, which means that in 30 minutes you wouldn’t be able to write more than 138 words.)

Is it any wonder that this writing process is slow, tortured and painful?

Yet many of the academics I work with — and some of the non-fiction writers as well — use precisely this process for writing.


Why you shouldn’t do more than one job at once

Writing and researching are two separate and distinct jobs. First, they use different parts of your brain — the analytic brain for the research and the creative brain for the writing. If you try to do both jobs at the same time, you’ll probably be using the wrong part of your brain for one of them — likely the writing part — which will only make the work more difficult. I’m convinced this situation is why so many people (roughly 80% of my clients) prefer editing to writing. They are using the wrong part of their brain for the writing.

Second, if you do both jobs at once, you’re multitasking, and research tells us we make more mistakes, become more frustrated and accomplish work much more slowly when we multitask. I’ve found the ‘work more slowly’ to be the biggest downside of multitasking in terms of writing.

But when I suggest to people they shouldn’t write this way, I get a lot of “…buts…”:

  • But I’m an academic and accuracy is so important.
  • But the issues I’m writing about are so complicated and if I don’t refer to my sources I don’t understand them.
  • But I can’t afford to make any mistakes.
  • But I need to be really well informed and grounded in reality.

Yes, I get it. So let me explain the system I suggest you use instead.

Separate the different jobs associated with writing

Understand that you will work better and more effectively if you do only one thing at a time. If accuracy and dealing with complexity are vitally important to you, be sure to schedule adequate time for researching first, before you let your fingers get anywhere near a keyboard.

Research should represent roughly 40% of your writing process and that’s a lot of time! But here’s the kicker: force yourself to keep a research diary while you’re doing it. I’ve written about this concept before and in my work with my Get It Done colleagues, I’ve been able to see what a profound difference this separation makes.

The benefits of a research diary are twofold: The diary forces you to start forming — and declaring — your opinions early in the process, while you are still collecting information. Many people who love research seem to relish the relatively mindless task of assembling, as if they were collecting shells at the beach. Easy peasy. No responsibility. The trouble with that attitude is that it doesn’t require much thinking and therefore doesn’t adequately prepare you for writing.

Writing should never just be the collection of facts. Instead, as the writer, you need to provide context and understanding and opinion. You need to move the ‘conversation’ on your subject to the next level. Otherwise why would anyone want to read it? People who want just facts can go ask Dr. Google.

The second big benefit of a research diary is that it keeps you writing when, otherwise, you might be tempted to avoid that job. (Writing is like exercise: if you don’t do it for more than a couple of days, you start to lose your conditioning.) As well, this writing is low-stakes and easy because no one — apart from you — is going to read it. It’s private and personal even though it provides the structure on which you can base your ultimate piece of writing.

Let me reiterate: a research diary does not contain any actual research. (You store the research you’ve carefully harvested somewhere else.) Instead, the diary contains your thoughts, ideas, opinions and reflections on the research you have reviewed. This is what makes it so valuable.

The next step

Once you’ve finished collecting your research, and you have a research diary bursting with ideas and opinions, then you can start writing. (I suggest you do some mindmapping at this point, although I’m not going to write about it today. See here for more information on that step.)

Don’t open all your reference documents at once! In fact, don’t open any of them at all — apart from your research diary. Your only job right now is to write a crappy first draft. Yes, I know you will make errors. Accept that fact and understand that it doesn’t matter. Why? Because you will have plenty of time for editing, later.

Write as quickly as you can, without referring to sources and without fretting about excellence. Your job is not to be excellent; it’s simply to get words on the page. The faster you write and the less you worry about excellence, the more words you will accumulate quickly.

If you ever run into a spot where you desperately need to look something up, DON’T let yourself do that. Instead, write yourself a promissory note. This is where you put a note directly in your text, reminding yourself about what you need to do later. For example, you might say: check spelling. Check citation. Check name. Check year. I know these tasks seem like easy ones that should take less than 20 seconds. But I’ve never known a Google search to take less than 20 minutes…and sometimes two hours. You’ll save yourself a lot of time if you do your checking and confirming at the end, all at once.

Finish with editing — and give it lots of time

If you held a gun to my head and asked me to identify the single most important step of the writing process, I’d say it was editing, no contest. At least 40% of your writing time should be devoted to editing and rewriting. (And, yes, simple math will tell you that leaves only 20% for writing. I know that and I’m onboard with it!)

But if clarity, accuracy and dealing with complexity are all important to you, understand that editing is the only time when you can truly address those matters.

Of course some people believe it’s impossible to write without having a dozen sources open in front of them so I present my suggestion this way:

Let’s imagine you can write 600 words in 30 minutes. How many sources will those 600 words contain? My guess is one to two at most. If you’re addressing only one to two sources, why do you need a dozen in front of you?

Final thoughts

When I teach this system, I often encounter resistance. I answer it by asking three additional questions:

  1. Are you happy with your current writing process?
  2. Does it make you feel comfortable and productive?
  3. Are you able to write at least 600 words in 30 minutes?

If you answer no to any of these questions, consider experimenting with a different system. One that puts control back in your hands and allows your creative brain to flourish.


Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my three-month accountability program called Get It Done. If you already know you want to apply, go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.


My video podcast last week addressed whether writing is a skill or a talent. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

How do you make your research process less painful? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Aug. 31/20 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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