Ninety Percent Research
By Evan Braun
While this blog was originally published in 2015, it perfectly fits the bill for our special series that unpacks the criteria we consider when evaluating manuscripts. This post considers the research part of “research and mechanics.” Stay tuned for a future post on mechanics. Whether you are in the midst of writing, or have already received feedback from us, our hope is that this series will provide the insight you need to make your manuscript even better. View the full series here.
It has been said that a writer’s job is ninety percent research, and only ten percent writing. I’m here to tell you that it’s true—mostly. It might perhaps be more accurate to say that research is the biggest part of the job once the writer has built up all his or her essential writing skills. Once you’ve accumulated a solid vocabulary base, mastered the ability to write great sentences, figured how to create compelling and memorable characters, sufficiently gotten a handle on point of view and building tension, and delved into the complex mysteries of how to structure a novel for maximum impact (to name just a few), the last roadblock is making sure every aspect of your story is believable… and that’s when research becomes the most important tool in your arsenal. A writer can do everything else perfectly, but if the research is poor, the writing won’t reach its full potential.
That said, it’s never too early in your learning curve as a writer to get a handle on research.
A few years ago, I worked with a client who wrote a novel that had a lot going for it. The characters were sharp and interesting, with engaging personalities and conflicts. The plot drew me in and moved along at a good clip. The writing was brisk and nuanced, even beautiful when required. Really, the novel was very well-executed—but the research was atrocious, and this proved so distracting that the rest of this otherwise brilliantly constructed story could not be properly enjoyed. Indeed, the plot hinged on poor research, and the characters’ actions and motivations were based on a foundation of faulty facts that could not stand up to scrutiny.
Poorly researched books often feel, unintentionally, as though they take place in slightly-off parallel realities that are almost exactly like the world we’re familiar with but contain flaws that indicate holes in the author’s knowledge base. For example, a version of New York City with made-up street names (the real ones are too famous to rewrite) or in which it takes just five minutes to casually stroll the full length of Central Park (in real life, it’s four kilometers long and half a kilometer wide). Or maybe a character drives through the border between China and Iran (the two countries are actually separated by more than a thousand kilometers, shortest distance), or maybe Russia has only one time zone (in real life, it has eleven).
These examples come from actual books I’ve worked on, and in each case the poor information was central to the plot.
“But it’s fiction,” you may be thinking. “The details don’t have to be exact.”
Except they do. A key part of your job as a writer is to make sure your reader stays immersed in the world, and nothing will snap a reader out of a book faster than obviously erroneous facts—or characterizations. Perhaps one of your main characters is a lawyer, but you don’t know much about practicing law so you make up the details to the best of your imagination… well, what happens when an actual lawyer tries reading your story? They won’t get very far. You need to become knowledgeable in the world (and professions) of your characters in order to convince readers of the underlying reality of your story. You can’t just wing it and hope for the best.
While writing, every time you come to a detail you don’t know much about, you need to hit the books (or Google). Writers require a broad base of knowledge, and the ability to become quickly proficient in a wide range of subjects. Don’t know much about the streets of New York? No problem. That’s what Google Streetview is for. Don’t know what bourbon tastes like? That’s when you turn to Yahoo Answers, or restaurant reviews. To just about any question, there is a way to get the answer—usually without leaving the confines of your writing space. (Though it doesn’t hurt to actually talk to flesh and blood people now and again… such as a lawyer, say.)
Which is why most established writers will ultimately concede that their job is mainly research. Because research is like gasoline; without it, you can have the most beautiful car in the world, but it ain’t going anywhere.
Did you enjoy this post? You may also be interested in part two, Good Research: Passing the Smell Test and also Pay Attention to the Little Things.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.