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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

When Research Blocks Your Writing, Questions are the Answer

the-right-questions-to-askWriters who resist research often have only a vague idea of what they’re looking for, so they don’t know how to start, where to go, or when to stop. Overwhelmed by the idea of research or hoping to not have to bother with it, their writing grinds to a halt.

Writers who get in stuck research, on the other hand, know how to start and what to do. But they get so engaged with the search itself, they don’t know when to stop.

The root of both problems is the same: neither group knows exactly what questions they’re trying to answer.

The solution is also the same: both groups need a list of open-ended questions to guide their research. (Writers who resist research may also need help with the technical skills of how to research.)

Consult the Map Before You Go

A list of open-ended questions is your map. The first step in the creative process, First Insight, is to draw your map.

map1The second stage, Saturation (aka research), is to follow your map as far as you need to go. (Stages of the creative process are described in Chapter 4 of AWB.)

First Insight may start with one central question. Both my nonfiction books (DDD: Dancing in the Dragon’s Den and AWB: Around the Writer’s Block) grew out the question: If it feels so good to create/write, why do I have so many ways to avoid it?

Or it might start with a cluster of related questions. My novel started with: Does duty to your mother take precedence over duty to your daughter? Who counts as family? How do different people reconcile the pull between duty to family and the urge to self-actualize?

Knowing the central question or cluster of questions places the X on the map. Then you need to get a touch more specific with your questions. For AWB: What the heck is going on in my brain when I don’t I do what I really want to do? Since the brain is “plastic,” can writers rewire our resistance to writing? What keeps a writer’s brain creative?

Don’t skimp or rush through this wondering stage. Before you move to research, write a list of at least seven open-ended questions.

Warning: Here Be Dragons of Hubris and Complacency!

map-here-be-dragonsIf you’ve done extensive research on a topic before, you may be tempted to think you don’t need to do more. Or that you have only one or two questions to answer.

But if you don’t ask new questions, you won’t see new connections. No new connections, means no creativity.

At best, you’ll regurgitate what you already know in derivative writing. Or you’ll get started, run out of material to work with, give that idea up, and move on in a long line of half-started projects.

Revise the Map as You Go

48785464 - travel. traveling map on the tableUse the list of questions to focus and direct your research. Record what you discover, where you discovered it or what sources prompted your new ideas and insights.

What you discover will prompt new questions, which revises your map. Be sure to add the new questions to your written list.

Get Lost Anyway

lost-in-right-direction-writers-blockEven with the best of maps and most carefully predetermined routes, you can get lost. Excellent! Creative insight is more likely when you get a little off the trail you thought you’d follow.

Sometimes following what seems to be an unrelated tangent can take you right where you need to go. It’s difficult to know in advance if a tangent will be worthwhile or not.

Creativity is NEVER efficient. (More about that in my next post.) Simply accepting that truth can do wonders for eliminating resistance to research. You’re not supposed to know. That’s why you’re exploring.

The only way to find out which questions will lead to answers, which will lead to more questions, and which will lead to dead ends is to follow the questions. Parts of your research will never make it to the draft.

If you could predict exactly where your search would take you, you wouldn’t need to take the journey.

Know When It’s Time to Move On

27496622 - creative solution business concept as a pencil shaped as a three dimensional lightbulb erasing a clear path through a maze puzzle as a success metaphor for creativity thinking and innovative strategy

Even if you initially resisted research, you can get caught up in it and not want to stop. Your list of questions will remind you when it’s time to move on.

You can’t let new questions lead you endlessly. Don’t turn the map over and start drawing on the other side.

As you invent new questions, ask yourself if they are truly related to the questions you started with. If not, push yourself to stop researching and start incubating. (See Chapter 4 of AWB for details.)

Don’t worry research-lovers, or get too comfortable research-resisters, you’ll go back to research again.

Whether you resist research (as I once did) or you prefer to stay in the research forever, a list of open-ended questions is your best guide to writing a piece you’re proud of.

You still may not know exactly where you’re going and the route you take probably won’t be exactly what you originally thought (thank God because that’s what keeps the journey intriguing). But a list of questions will get you started and tell you when to stop.

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2 Comments on “When Research Blocks Your Writing, Questions are the Answer”

  1. kperrymn February 17, 2017 at 5:57 pm #

    I often have trouble figuring out if my research is productive or not. This process will help me sort it out. Thanks!!


    • rosannebane February 21, 2017 at 8:29 am #

      You’re welcome, Katy. Thanks for your comment. Let me know if you discover additional ways to wrestle with research.


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