Whether you write non-fiction or fiction, research is (or it had better be) a part of your process. Even if you’re “writing what you know,” you still need to supplement your knowledge with that of others. (Unless you are the foremost expert in your field, then I guess you can go ahead without any research.) Unless your brain is an encyclopedia, you’re going to have to check names, dates, history, culture, events, and a host of other things.
But the question is: Do you do that work before you begin to write, or on the fly as questions occur to you?
(Caveat: Even if you choose to do the bulk of your research at the beginning of your process, you will still have to do some more along the way. I don’t know anyone who has been able to do it all up front and walk away.)
For me, personally, I prefer to research on the fly. I come up with an idea for a book or article, get just enough information to push me in the right direction, and then start writing a rough draft. As questions come up, I go find the answers. Often, this will take me down crazy rabbit holes as I learn more and more, and I’m able to add to my work as I go. Once I’ve got a few answers, I set the research materials aside and write some more. Repeat as necessary.
But I know other people who want to hit the books hard at the beginning of their writing process. They prefer to go in fully armed with data and only research tiny details once they begin writing.
Neither approach is right or wrong, it’s simply a matter of personal preference.
Benefits of Researching First
You can clarify your thoughts and ideas.
Writing anything requires taking a nebulous idea and forming it into something solid and sharp. If you do most of your research up front, you enter the writing process knowing that you have something to work with. You know that your idea is solid and supportable. You’re clear on where you’re going. (If you’re an outliner, up front research is probably a necessity as you likely use it to populate your outline.) When you’ve done a ton of research on the front end, you have confidence that you’ve got a good project idea.
You eliminate some problems before you get too far.
This is the biggest benefit to doing most of your research up front. You don’t find yourself stuck in a corner having based your entire project around a set of ideas that turn out to have no basis in reality. It can happen in fiction and non-fiction if you’re not careful. Then you realize you’re on page two-hundred of a novel whose premise is shot to hell, all because you didn’t get the facts right.
You’re not distracted by research as you write.
If you do your research up front, you can immerse yourself in the work and get on with it. You don’t have to come out of your flow state to look up facts or interview people. You’ve probably got enough information that you can keep writing and just leave yourself little notes in your manuscript to come back to later. Researching on the fly requires a lot more interruptions, with the associated difficulty of getting back to work.
Benefits of Researching as You Go
You will actually get started on the writing.
This is the biggest reason why I research as I go along. Research is fun for me. I can spend days holed up in a library or archive studying books and papers. I love it! The problem is that I love it so much that I’ll just keep right on doing it and never get around to the actual writing. I’ll just spend my days stuffing my brain with facts and use it as an excuse to avoid writing. (It’s way too easy to say, “I’m not ready to write! I don’t know everything, yet!)
More than once, I’ve spent so much time researching that I’ve lost interest in the writing project. Once there’s nothing left to discover, I feel like, “Eh. Why write the book, now?” I need a carrot to chase when I write and that carrot is more information. If I get it all up front, it can kill my desire to write about the thing.
You don’t develop too many preconceived ideas.
Part of writing is the discovery of something. Whether that’s the relationships between your characters, the resolution to a mystery, or how certain facts work together to create a new idea, I want to have that, “Ah-ha moment” when I’m writing. If I do too much research up front, I’m no longer looking for the ah-ha, I’m just regurgitating what I’ve learned. Too much research locks you in to thinking you know how something should go and you’re less open to the mystery and the ah-ha moments that can take your work from good to great.
The research can open up some interesting possibilities/jump start creativity.
Almost every project hits that place where you get stuck and feel like you can’t go any further. Having a lot of loose research ends is a godsend in this phase of a project. I can start digging around and often come up with something that takes me off in a new direction or unclogs the block. If everything is known beforehand, there’s less of this serendipity.
There’s no right way to do your research. Like so much of writing, you have to do what works for you. Maybe it’s a combination of the early and often methods. Maybe you do a decent-sized chunk of research at the beginning, but leave yourself enough unknowns to allow for the serendipitous moments in writing.
No matter how you do it, the important thing is to do the research. I’ve read too many works with errors that pull me out of the story, or ruin the argument the author is trying to make. At the end of the day, your readers aren’t going to know or care how you did it, only that you did.