Solution to Writing Obstacle No. 26:
“I have to read just one more book before I can write.”
Many of us tend to bog down in research.
We find it difficult to get to writing because we are lured into the forest of no return, otherwise known as the library. Each article leads to another and then another, especially online. We wander deeper and deeper into this forest, rarely finding a path out. Why do we do this? While we remain in the forest, we are safe from the perils of writing. The idea that just one more article is going to give us mastery is an illusion. If such a thing as mastery is possible, it comes from writing, not just reading.
Thus, the best way I know to get out of the research bog is to do your writing and research at the same time.
Do not take endless notes and underline huge sections of books, and then feel overwhelmed because you have to go back through all of those notes and texts. Read and then write an actual paragraph, however loose, about what you have read.
The point here is that you do not have to “finish” research before you start writing. You do not have to complete your literature search or finalize your data analysis or even read your advisor’s book. You do not have to know everything on the subject. Start writing and find out what you must know.
As Boice puts it, “Writers who learn to leave holes in manuscripts to be filled later master valuable skills in writing: they learn to proceed amid ambiguity and uncertainty” (Boice 1997, 29). I know a graduate student who claims that she finished her dissertation by posting this quote on her computer and looking at it every time she wanted to reach for another book.
Erich Auerbach’s masterpiece Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature is a good example of this principle of research. Discharged from his university position in Germany by the Nazi government, Auerbach emigrated to Turkey, where he wrote Mimesis from 1942 to 1945. In his epilogue, Auerbach explains that the book lacks footnotes and may assert things that “modern research has disproved or modified” because the libraries in Istanbul were “not well equipped for European studies.” Then he adds a fascinating note. “It is quite possible that the book owes its existence to just this lack of a rich and specialized library. If it had been possible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might never have reached the point of writing” (Auerbach 1953).
Don’t feel bad about not having done enough research. In the twenty-first century, it is no longer possible to be comprehensive. As knowledge expands and ways to communicate that knowledge explode, accelerating ignorance is an inevitable state. The best future researcher will be someone who learns to make a path through this immensity without getting overwhelmed and selecting only a few flowers from it on the way.
Auerbach, Erich. 1953. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Solution to Writing Obstacle No. 26, one of the distraction obstacles listed on page 32 of Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success (University of Chicago Press, 2019).