Image by Fathromi Ramdlon from Pixabay
Early on in the information literacy course I teach each semester, I introduce students to a couple of common myths about research, things students commonly believe because of their experience with academic research. This includes things like “research is about finding the right answer” and “citation sucks” (which I tell them isn’t really a myth because, well, citation does suck).
Now that I’m spending some time thinking about the role of research in creative writing, I’m finding that there’s a whole other set of myths/beliefs that keep cropping up, ones that I hadn’t thought about or that don’t apply to the type of research I usually teach.
Research is academic
“Research” is a word that’s most closely associated with academic and scholarly contexts. When you use the word “research,” people start picturing themselves sitting in a silent, dimly lit library with a stack of dusty books and a giant mug of coffee to keep them awake through a night of intense studying. Or maybe they think of being in a lab with a microscope and petri dishes while wearing a white coat. They don’t think of that quick Google search they did this morning looking for tips on how to lose weight or how to train your dragon (IDK…I needed to finish that sentence with something and when I typed “how to” in Google, it auto-filled with those choices, among some others).
That second thing is more commonly known as “information seeking” rather than research, but I’m pretty sure the difference is one of semantics and maybe context. If you are seeking information in order to fill a gap in knowledge, you are (in my opinion) doing research, even if you are only doing it to satisfy your own curiosity.
Research is boring
In The Writer’s Practice (a book which was not part of my study but is well worth a read), John Warner comes out and says it: research is boring. Nobody likes research. You have to do it anyway.
The truth is, research is boring. But only when you’re researching something you’re not actually interested in or curious about. The same is true of any activity. Even writing. Writing itself is boring if you’re not actually interested in the thing you’re writing about. Or if you’re just having a bad writing day. But sometimes you get to that place where you find the flow and it’s going so well it feels like magic.
Research can be that way, too. Speaking from my own experience, I recently stumbled on a research article related to the relationship between curiosity and creativity, hoping to find something I could use for a project I’m working on. I did not have high hopes. Then I started reading and connections between what I was reading and my own work that I hadn’t begun to consider started to jump out at me. Suddenly, this whole new area of thinking opened up to me and it was the most exciting moment I’ve had working on this project so far.
So sometimes research is boring. But sometimes it’s magic.
Research is seductive and dangerous
This is sort of the opposite of the one above. When I was completing my 10 books project, I saw at least two books that warned against doing research because if you got too interested in the information you were finding, you were going to end up using all of your writing time on that instead of actual writing. Therefore, you should spend as little time on research as possible.
The big question here is whether research is part of the writing process or separate from it. True, research is not going to help you meet whatever word count goal you might have for yourself, if that’s your chosen method of measuring your progress. But Anne Lamott, the lone advocate for research I found in all ten of the books I read, says that when you’re writing, you’re inevitably going to get to a point where you can’t move forward until you’ve find something out. Maybe this is why she argues that research (or “calling around,” as she calls it) is part of the work and therefore not shirking.
Research is procrastination
There’s this thing that I do sometimes where I’ll be reading an article on Wikipedia and there will be a link to another, related article that also sounds interesting. I’ll click on that link, then find a new link in the next article, then a new link in that one, and so on. I think there’s a name for this phenomenon, but a friend of mine always called it “wiki-tripping,” so that’s how I usually think of it.
Anyway, yeah. Wiki-tripping is not research. Research is seeking information to fill a gap in knowledge. Wiki-tripping is seeking information to stave off boredom or avoid doing something else.
Research is not procrastination as long as it has a purpose. Which is to say, sometimes research can turn into procrastination (and vice versa) but if you’re seeking information that you hope to use later, then that’s not procrastination. It’s work.
Research has to involve the library
It’s hard to tell because of the shortage of information, but I suspect that research that is undertaken for creative purposes does not look like research that is undertaken for academic or scholarly purposes. Like, academic and scholarly research generally requires the use of library resources, although to what degree will depend a lot on the specific field of study. Creative research might involve a library or an archive or a person serving as an interview subject. Then again, it might not. It doesn’t have to.
This is probably harder for librarians to understand than writers or other researchers. As I’ve mentioned before, there are very few studies out there about the information habits of writers and other artists but the ones that have been written generally seek to understand not so much the role of research in creative writing but the role of the library in the information habits of creative populations. Which is an important question, sure, but it’s not the same thing.
So these are some myths about research that I keep running into in my reading. I’m sure other librarians know of tons more.