Sunday, May 6, 2012

6. How to Avoid Writing

This post is for anyone who has ever written anything on assignment--from a commissioned book to a term paper. If you are like most writers, your mind will find any number of things to do other than actually writing your assignment.

If it is a term paper or an article, the temptation is to over-research. I have done that many times with nonfiction books and articles. I was surprised to find out that over-researching was also an occupational hazard when I began writing Pandora’s Genes.

Like character names, research is important to the final product, but at some point you need to say “enough” and start writing. I did not do much research when I first started writing Pandora’s Genes, because of the way it spilled out. But when I got to the remaining three parts of the book, I needed to do geographical and scientific research, particularly on genetics. I also had to research the history of technologies, and some ancient fighting methods. This was all fascinating, but I had to force myself not to overdo.

Here’s what I learned about avoiding Paralysis by Research: begin with general research only. For example, learn the basics of how aerobic exercise works, but don’t worry about the specifics of how many calories each form of exercise burns per minute. You can always find and insert that information later. But if you sweat the small stuff in the beginning, you may become so taken by the details that you never even start the actual writing.

Once you have a good grasp of the period, or the genetic mechanism, or whatever your overview involves, just start writing and keep going. When you come to something for which you need further research, put a squiggly line under it or otherwise highlight it to research more fully later, after you have finished your draft. Then forget about it.

A related problem a lot of beginning--and established--writers have is spending too much time on small grammatical or stylistic details. Trying, for example, to get that first sentence (or paragraph, or even chapter) JUST RIGHT before going on. This practice is a trap, because perfection in writing is elusive and usually impossible. Besides, when you get farther along in the story you’ll often find that you didn’t need that sentence or paragraph in the first place. You may also find that the first thing you wrote down was fine as is.

To become a professional writer you must learn to be ruthless with yourself. Do not allow yourself too much time and energy on procrastination of any sort. For most of us, It’s much better to just keep writing and work out the details later.

Tomorrow: 5 reasons to write a novel.


  1. Oh, goddess, now you are going to get me to procrastinate what I am doing now--putting my house in order--and write a novel. Just what I need, another distraction. LOL. So enjoying this blog.

  2. Thanks, Nan! I'd love it if you wrote a novel.

    1. Excellent advice. And of course the research trap is even worse with the Internet. Cats! Cats everywhere!

      I still think Robert Benchley had the best advice on fighting procrastination. You can find that on the Internet too.

    2. Here's a link to an article about Benchley's writing habits. Very funny:

  3. I'm going to take your advice and quit obsessing over the first sentence. Also the second. And the 2,543rd.