Dasein, Red Elephant.

Writing and Research Paralysis

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While reading Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power, I came across the problem of ‘research paralysis’: the suffocation of a writer’s creativity by the sheer breadth and depth of the research process. This is something that happens to me most of the time, always leading me to some form of turpid procrastination. Elbow illustrates a common situation and offers some practical solutions..

The more research you do, the more impossible it is to start writing. You already have so much material-whether it is in your head or in your notes — that you can't find a place to start, you can't find a beginning to grab hold of in that tangled ball of string. You can write more notes but you can't start. Besides, you never feel you have finished your research: there are a couple more books or articles to get a hold of; they sound promising; better not write anything yet because they probably have some very important material that will change the whole picture.

Writing first thoughts or prejudices or an instant version keeps you from falling into this research paralysis. Have the sense to realize that it's easier to write now when you know less. You can use subsequent research to check your thinking and to revise your writing to any level of sophistication that you wish.

According to Elbow, there is also a benefit of writing spontaneously for at least 15 minutes on the topic at hand before one begins actual research for a particular paper:

Early, spontaneous writing will make dull research interesting because you will already be an "authority" on the topic: you will already have lots of thoughts and a point of view. When they (other authorities) come up with data or thinking that is new to you, it will be interesting and energizing. In short, your mind will already have a "set" or receptive net, which will help you absorb all this otherwise dull information.

It gets you out of that helpless position where you feel you cannot write anything unless you find out what all the "authorities" have said — a frame of mind that seduces you into one of the major forms of poor writing: writing that merely summarizes what "they" say. First thoughts, prejudices, and instant versions catapult you into a position of initiative and control so that you use reading and research to check and revise your thinking actively, not passively just to find something to think.


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  1. * chapiglet says:

    Yes, that’s very true. It’s good to write down first thoughts about the subject matter and then dive into research.

    | Reply Posted 12 years, 4 months ago

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