When to Research vs. Wing It 


One of the pitfalls of writing fiction is that moment where you wonder if you actually know what you’re talking about. Maybe you’re working on a piece that involves a rare disease, or your main character needs to be promoted to a higher rank in his Roman legion. Do you stop and look up the facts, or plunge on ahead and meet your word count?

For those who are hesitant to do the latter, there’s some aspects of research you can do on the fly: Wikipedia is great for these occasions. You type in what you need, get a quick answer, and get right back to work.

The problem is that almost no writer I know of is able to just stop after one quick fact check. Most writers tend to love knowledge in general, and while researching one thing, they’re quickly led down another path they want to explore. Before you know it, you’ve killed two hours of writing time and only have a sentence to show for it…but you’ve definitely educated yourself about Roman punishments.

So where’s the happy medium?

The key to balancing research and writing is to keep yourself in check. Make sure your work is factually accurate when it needs to be, but don’t let yourself get bogged yourself down in minute details that only you and a handful of readers are going to notice.

If you’re dangling by a thread and aren’t sure whether you should look something up or forge on ahead, here’s a few things I keep in mind when I’m writing.

If you’re on a rough draft deadline and need to get the story on paper, wing it. Yes, this includes the upcoming NaNoWriMo competition. Make some notes to yourself as you go, indicating where you may want to go back and do additional research.

If you’re writing a story in a genre known for realism, sit down and research. Historical fiction, crime dramas, and political stories may include rituals, procedures, and policies that you should definitely have a grasp on, as they will often have a huge impact on the story. At least do some preliminary research so you know how they will influence your plot.

Know your genre before leaping to decisions. If you’re writing space opera and don’t particularly care about the laws of physics, then have at it with turbolasers and hyperdrives. But if you want to write plausible, hard science fiction, you’re going to need to read up on your subject matter.

If research is something you feel you need to do, then give yourself a specific amount of time to research. If you’ve got an idea of the things you’ll need to know, take a few hours before you begin work and get your notes out of the way. There’s nothing more taxing on a word count than stopping in the middle.

Above all else, remember that in most cases, the minute data can be added later—don’t get so caught up in the act of research that you forget to write!