When I wrote the posts about Charity Singleton Craig’s and Ann Kroeker’s book, “On Being a Writer,” Ann left this comment:
Megan, I’ll bet we all could benefit from a research session with you. Maybe a blog post someday about your process?
Here goes. I thought I had nothing to say, and then I wrote 1,000 words. Sorry, Ann.
Research, very simply, is a lot like swimming. You’ve gotta abandon dry ground. You’ve gotta take the plunge. You’ve gotta get wet.
Most important, start on a Friday. Why? Because no one is going to return your calls on Friday anyway. And there’s probably a part of you that doesn’t want to be working, that wishes you were taking off early for the beach. But you aren’t. So it’s the perfect day to research.
How? Dive deep, my friends, dive deep.
Your goal is to immerse yourself in your subject (mine is usually a person). Feel like you’re swimming in their thoughts. When you finally interview them, they will still surprise you, and that is always a delight.
I like to begin fairly old-school, with a Manilla folder, titled with the person’s name, and then I get my Google finger ready and print, print, print. I love to print. Then I love to highlight (usually orange).
Where do you look? I start with news sources—newpapers, magazines, reputable online news sites. Are there TV news stories on YouTube? Watch them. Is there a bio on the website where they work? Read it. Do they have a personal website or a blog? Read criticism. Follow/semi-stalk them on social media to see not only what they’re saying but what their public says about them.
A word on Wikipedia. It is not always reliable, but it is often useful. The links at the bottom of the articles may take you to reputable sites. And I do use it to cover my own ignorance, like if I need to know the capital of Slovakia. That kind of thing is usually accurate. Articles about people, especially celebrities, are usually the least reliable.
There are some things I don’t print if I only need one sentence from an article. I will copy/paste that sentence into my document in green so that I will know a month later, when my brain is on overload, that those words aren’t mine. I can’t tell you how many times this has saved me from inadvertent plagiarism.
If the person wrote a book, download it and read it over the weekend. If I’m researching, I like my books to be e-books so I can highlight and then obsessively use the Search function later when I’m writing. If they have a movie or a TV series, that is also great weekend work. You can sit in your pajamas, with your computer out and the TV on and take notes.
While I’m diving deep, occasionally I will have a Brilliant Thought. Stop everything and write it down.This is the territory Anne Lamott refers to as Shitty First Drafts, but I can’t tell you how many times a key sentence emerged from one of these moments. Generally, if I write 500 words during one of these exercises, only 50 will make it to the final draft.
Write along the way. Don’t wait until the research is finished. Write during.
My long profiles tend to be about people in the news, so I need to keep checking news sources. I usually find a couple of websites that I add to my bookmarks and check daily while I’m writing. As I get closer to my deadline, it gets harder to not jump back into that pool of research. Now instead of a swim, it’s just a quick dip.
Since I’m doing this research to prepare for an interview, I write questions along the way on .a separate page called Questions. I write down any and every question that comes to my mind . Many of these get answered and eliminated before the interview.
It’s hard to know when to stop researching, but basically nothing new comes up. I only have a limited word count, so I have to focus. Then, it’s time for Starbucks.
Perhaps you live in a town with a Starbucks on every corner. I live 30 miles from the nearest Starbucks. There’s another one 45 miles away and another 60 miles out. It doesn’t have to be Starbucks, but for me, it has to be out of town. I need to be where no one knows me. I put my phone on Do Not Disturb. I don’t open email. It’s a day I don’t need WiFi. I need the chatter of people I don’t know. I need my Manilla folder and my Kindle and something warm to drink. This is when I want to be surrounded by paper. I want to feel like I am underwater, and paragraph by paragraph, I’m going to swim to the surface. Whenever I do this, I emerge with the skeleton of the piece, including the subheads. I write them all together at the top of the document and then tweak them later.
One more thought about the actual writing. After the Starbucks session, when I really start crafting the thing, I begin to see paragraphs that, well, probably don’t need to be there anymore. But I’m not sure. I have a special place for those guys. The last page of every document I title Leftovers, and when I cut things from the main work, I stick them there. It gradually gets longer and longer, but I keep it handy. Lots of times, I’ll cut something and then a week later, realize I need one sentence from a particular paragraph.
One more thing: Research is different from fact-checking. There will be a time later to make sure I’ve correctly spelled Des Moines. That will be a day at home, with my editor hat on, looking up stuff while Polo and Clover ignore me and lie in the sun.