Research Part Two: Too Deep

In Uncategorized on January 24, 2014 at 10:00 am

So, last time we talked about not doing enough research. Most writers know they need to do their research, though; workshops teach it and everyone preaches it, and it’s easy to be humiliated by someone more knowledgeable if you don’t do it. So that seems to me to be a less prevalent problem in published work than the other side of the coin: too much research.

I thought about dedicating a post to how one should research, inbetween “too little” and “too much”, but research is such a subject-specific issue, and honestly it’s not that hard to learn how to look up what you need to know, especially with google’s search engine getting more frighteningly intelligent every day. So I thought it was more important to focus first on why you should research, and now on how you should deal with what you find.

An old classic from XKCD

It’s easy to go down the rabbit-hole when you’re researching, especially on the internet. It’s called “wikiwandering” — looking up one thing you need to know, and ending up reading about ten thousand things you didn’t need to know but suddenly desperately want to know. It happens on Wikipedia, but most infamously on the TV Tropes website, and other sites like Cracked.

As an aside, I did some looking-into the phenomenon of wikiwandering and found that there’s been essentially no scholarly work done on the psychology of it. I would venture to say that whatever the evolutionary trigger behind it, it’s worse on TV Tropes because usually on Wikipedia you at least have an inkling of the meaning of the link you’re following; on TV Tropes, because of the funny titles, you have much less clue about what the link will lead to, which inversely affects your curiosity.

Back to the subject at hand. There’s nothing particularly harmful about wikiwandering, at least in moderation. Some people call it a time-waster, but if the knowledge is valuable or even just entertaining, there’s not much wasteful about it; nothing more wasteful than reading a book on any given topic, or going to an educational museum. Even if you just meant to look something up and get right back to writing but got lost, the writing will still be there in an hour or two.

Occasionally, that sheer wall of knowledge can be paralyzing: information overload, the so-called bane of our time. There’s been a lot written about that online, about how our brains can’t handle the level of data we can now pull off the internet or the frequency with which a high level of data assaults us on a daily basis. (While I do agree that an overload can be harmful, the onus is not on the internet to filter your information for you. The responsibility lies with the individual, to put filters in place and to know when they’re reaching a critical point. It can be a process, but I think for a researcher it’s an important one.)

Being unable to write because of information paralysis is certainly an issue; there’s no real cure for that except to clear your head, ditch the research, write what you want, and fix it later. Especially since nothing ruins a good book, fiction or nonfiction, like information overload transmitted from the writer to the reader.

I was trying, a couple of years ago, to read the biography of a famous con man. It was a hefty book, which I’d hoped meant there would be a lot of meat about his life, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. The writer had clearly intended to write a biography, but what they had accomplished was a wide picture of life in the subject’s era. A little too wide, in fact; when the con man went to prison, a full history of the prison was provided; when he was put on a “prison ship”, a history of the ships was given as well. Not a paragraph, not a page, but page after page of information that was accurate but not relevant — at least not to the stated purpose of the book.

And if it’s possible to provide too much information even in nonfiction, it’s downright easy to provide it in fiction; you control what people say, so you have endless opportunities to make them deliver lectures on things the writer desperately wants to share but the reader probably doesn’t care that much about.

For a writer, research is a process of learning, in order to be able to place a framework on the page. The peril falls where the framework begins to devour the subject matter — where including a fact is more important than building a narrative. That’s a much harder filter to install, to be honest — the filter that says “okay, stop providing information now, it’s getting in front of the story”. There’s an urge to share knowledge that I think is natural and human, and the more interested in it we are, the more we want to share it with someone else. But that is — if you absolutely must share the information — what an appendix is for.  I would rather read a well written, poorly-researched novel than a poorly-researched but excruciatingly accurate one.

Put that brilliance in the back matter. Better yet, tuck it away in your brain and feel smug that your knowledge contributed materially to your novel, whether or not anyone else ever knows or notices.


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