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5 signs you’re doing too much research it's time to get back to writing

 

6 Simple Steps to Finally Finish Your First Draft

a book coach's secrets to generating ideas, organizing chapters, & writing productively

When you begin working on a new writing project, if you’re like most normal people, you’ll begin to think absolutely crazy thoughts, like:

  • “If I’m going to write about this, I have to have read every article or book known to man about this topic!”
  • “If I read just one more book, I’ll have my break through, and the whole writing project will just click together.”
  • “Once I’m an expert on the topic, I’ll feel much more confident writing about it.”

Okay, there is some validity to these thoughts. You do need to have read about the topic in which you’re writing, but we put entirely too much pressure on ourselves to be certifiable experts before we allow ourselves to feel any confidence in writing. So, we plug away at the research, buying books and skimming articles, like we’re looking for buried treasure underneath a mountain of sand.

opened book, lying on the bookshelf with a glasses

Why do we get so obsessed with research? Research is quite literally addicting.

When your brain gathers new information, anytime you learn something new, your brain experiences a kick of dopamine. Traditionally, psychologists have thought of dopamine as one of the neurotransmitters that controls or causes pleasure in the brain. What new psychology studies are finding out, though, is perhaps dopamine causes us to seek pleasure, rather than experience pleasure. So, when your brain gathers new information, you get a kick of dopamine, which actually tells you’re brain, “Keep seeking, keep looking!”

The opioid neurotransmitter is more closely linked with actually experiencing pleasure. Sometimes dopamine (seeking) and opioid (liking) go hand-in-hand, but sometimes the dopamine release causes an endless feedback loop, in which we are constantly seeking more, more, more, while never feeling a sense of pleasure or satisfaction.

Kind of like your own endless research loop?

How to tell if you’re spending too much time researching.

Here are 5 signs that you may be doing too much research. (These are based entirely on my conversations with authors and my own experience, not a psychological study!)

1. You feel an intense, almost suffocating pressure to read dozens of books and articles. Right now.

2. You’ve been researching for more than a month, but you actually can’t remember what any of the books you read four weeks ago were about.

3. When you sit down to write on your own writing project, you feel blocked, like your brain can literally produce no words that make sense together.

4. Even when you do write something, you find yourself unable to write more than a few sentences without re-reading portions of the books and articles that you’ve been using for research. It’s like you return to other authors’ words, hoping that they’ll magically spark your creativity.

5. You have a sense that you should be able to write something original, but often, your confidence deflates to the point that you wonder if you’ll ever be able to contribute anything useful to the topic.

Was that too harsh? Hit a little too close to home? Yeah, I’ve been there too. It’s awful.

BUT there is a way to get out of the endless research loop!

You need to get your brain out of the “give me, give me, give me” cycle. Instead of trying to cram more input into your brain, you require more output from your mind.

Essentially: Take notes on what you’re reading.

I don’t mean highlight passages and jot down thoughts in the margins. I also don’t mean creating extensive outlines of the argument and sub-arguments of every book you read.

I do mean that you should process what you’re reading. Since you’re a writer, I suggest you process through writing. Every single day, sit down and flip through what you’ve read that day. Sure, yes, write down the author’s argument or method or any major points.

Then, write your own reflection of the book or article. In your own words, dissect the argument, point out to yourself how this book is similar to or different than another book you’ve read, and include how the writing makes you feel. You can treat these notes as a journal entry, documenting your thoughts and feelings as you’re researching. The cumulation of these notes is more like a research diary.

The benefit of a research diary is that you begin the writing process early on in your research phase.

A significant cause of writer’s block is that you’ve had too much mental input, and you haven’t processed it, so you don’t even really know what you think yet. If you research for months, then sit down to write, you are really only beginning to process. Plus, you may have forgotten a significant portion of what you read.

If you keep a research diary, I predict that you will reap three enormous benefits:

1. Your memory of what you read will improve significantly because you are creating associative pathways between pieces of information.

2. You will have more associations between books and articles that others may not have noticed, and those associations may very well lead to a breakthrough in the field.

3. You will figure out much earlier on what you’re saying in this new writing piece. If you discover the purpose of your writing while keeping your research diary (and you will), by the time you “begin writing” your article or book, you will write faster and with more confidence.

And aren’t those benefits worth spending 30-45 minutes writing in a research diary every day?

Try it out right now. Write a diary or reflection or critique or ode to whatever you’ve been researching today. Could be a beautiful beginning to a whole new lifestyle of confident writing.

3 Comments
  1. FrankyFreedom says:

    YES! This is an excellent, highly practical and informative article. I like how you examine the neurological factors involved. A few years ago I was spending hours a day downloading ebook and other resources and then eventually came to the realization that there are simply not enough hours in the day/lifetime to actually CONSUME all of the information. Your explanation that dopamine drives this behavior is a very interesting one which I hadn’t thought of. Then the idea that opiods help slow us down enough to consume and enjoy the information is equally enlightening. Interestingly, linguistic research has found that people can understand, speak and write a foreign language BETTER after they have consumed a moderate amount of alcohol (ex. a few glasses for the “buzz” effect). In line with your theory it would seem safe so assume that the opiods and alcohol have a sedating (“slowing down”) effect on neural activity which downregulates the brain (for instance, via the increase of GABA activity). Melatonin may also be helpful for as an exogenous agent for calming the dopamine system and spiking GABA. Also, the downregulating neurotransmitters have been found to be effective in helping those who suffer from ADD to focus. Personally, after a few beers or glasses of wine my brain is MUCH calmer and more focused and my research/writing ability improves noticably.

    This is a very good article. Perhaps you can write a follow up article to explore this issue in greater detail (in addition to additional tips for those of us “high-strung-but-highly-intelligent” creative types).

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful and thought-provoking responses, Franky! Yes, I hadn’t made the connection between foreign language learning and other types of learning, but I think you’re right; when the brain is “hyped” up on consuming, it hinders producing, whether that’s producing your own thoughts in a foreign language or producing creative content. A beer definitely helps my content creation too. :)

      I also find the reflexive process helpful. Gathering input, writing some, gathering more input, writing more. Yes, this allows the brain to process as it goes.

      I took a look at your website – very interesting content! I’ll be following.

  2. FrankyFreedom says:

    I also have developed my own strategies for dealing with this issue as I write my relatively research-heavy natural health related articles on my blog :

    http://bigpharmaresistanceofamerica.wordpress.com/

    I have found it helpful to start by finding interesting articles related to the subject. I then read through the articles to filter out the best quality ones (which are the ones which I will link to in the bog post itself). Then I start by writing just one or two sentences (in a rough form) which allows me to integrate the link into my blog article. Now that the link is up there is a sense of accomplishment (to counteract the sense of “not getting anything down on paper” which tends to accompany the “hyper-seeking” behavior you mention in this article. Then I go back and read the new linked article again (often with a few quick reads of the developing draft of my whole blog post) in order to fine tune the writing, add more info from the linked article and integrate the sentences around the linked article more smoothly into the whole article.

    In this way the whole process is like building a house. That is, you are SIMULTANEOUSLY adding new content AS you search for more.AND as you fine tine and thus REVIEW the content in a more fluid process. It is basically the same as building the foundation of a house brick-by-brick. By focusing on installing each brick (in this case : each new research article link) and then cementing it into place (in this case : fine tuning the writing around the link and integrating it in with the larger article) this process enables you to achieve a nice balance between the more “Yin” process of “taking the new research into your mind” and the more “Yang” process of getting that research link information into USEABLE and tangible form which moves the whole project forward.

    Anyway, these are my thoughts on the issue as I have developed this process over the years and find it to be very helpful in drawing the research IN and then getting it OUT into a productive output.

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6 Simple Steps to Finally Finish Your First Draft

a book coach's secrets to generating ideas, organizing chapters, & writing productively