As-it-happens research updates: can't write with 'em, can't write without 'em?
April 22, 2011 4:03 PM   Subscribe

How to concentrate on a research-driven book project when the subject matter is periodically changing / being updated by other writers?

My little brother is working on a history of a contemporary cultural idea sort of book. He's getting paralysed between sifting through daily Google Alerts and/or running random Google searches (with new search term combinations) on the topic and actually immersing himself in the research and just ploughing ahead. I've always encouraged him to do the latter, keeping blinders on for now, but he argues, persuasively enough, that he needs to be 1/ vigilant against being scooped, in which case he can still tweak his argument in time, and 2/ attentive to new information that could come up at any time and enhance his material. The problem as I see it is that he ends up being fascinated by only tenuously relevant factoids that spin off into their own smaller-project ideas -- keeping the project of his heart's desire from going forward. Never having attempted a long writing project, though, I feel ill-equipped to advise him in a way more robust / specific than variations on hey-you-trust-yourself. He's a bit of a loner; left grad studies in history and doesn't have a writerly / academic community he can go to for this advice (or the personality to consult widely). He is brilliant, though (in my humble kith/kin opinion), and has the brains and willpower to do this -- but at the moment may be both too conscientious and thereby, paradoxically, distractible.

Ye writers / long-form journalists / scholars out there must encounter this sort of challenge all the time. And surely there have been plenty of times when some smart and diligent person emerges from years of isolated toil with a finished book manuscript, only to discover that another book has just been published on the same thing? Is it just a gamble you have to make, believing that your own work, even if not singular in subject, is untrumpably original in its treatment? (But surely uniqueness of voice / perspective isn't always enough to save a project when someone else got to its topic first?) In the age of Google Alerts, how do you fight the sense that anyone could be doing what you're doing, and finish doing it faster, while you're obliviously toiling away, perhaps for (nearly) nought? (Sorry for wordiness, though typing it out like this I really do feel his quandary....)

Many thanks in advance!
posted by taramosalata to Writing & Language (4 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
At some point you have to just recognize that you cannot be complete and perfectly up-to-date. It's a gamble— sometimes a competing book is bad, sometimes it means that the topic is hot and you all get more attention.

I recently co-wrote a book on empathy, which is an insanely hot topic in neuroscience and across a bunch of other disciplines. Could I keep up? No fucking way— but almost no one wants to read an 800 page book (which is actually how long one of the competing books turned out to be!)

Writing a book is always an act of faith— but trying to be perfect or complete is a fool's goal.
posted by Maias at 4:18 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I felt this way when writing my dissertation, and the field was not nearly as fast moving as your brother's sounds like, so I feel his pain. My number one suggestion is not to check his google alerts every day or anywhere near so often. If you are revising your plans every day, the book will never get written. He needs to limit his research time to a much smaller percentage of the writing time. A good schedule for me was to write/work with the data I had already collected three weeks out of four, and then to allow myself to dive back into the literature/google etc for the fourth week. This provided a bit of a break, a sanity check, and reassurance that I hadn't been scooped, plus it was PLENTY often enough to keep me up to date. I could probably have got away with only looking to see what was new every two or three months, but your brother might need the once a month check if the field is really changing so dramatically.
posted by lollusc at 4:57 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

One other thing: he also needs to realise that it doesn't matter if changes/new things happen in the short term. If they have vanished from the field by the time the book comes out, then he can safely ignore them, unless they had some lasting impact. So it is probably dangerous to check what's new daily, because some of the new stuff will be way too ephemeral for him to waste his time on.
posted by lollusc at 5:00 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's much more fun to drift around the internet kidding yourself you're doing 'research' than it is to actually sit down, do the hard yards and finish what you're supposed to be doing. Does he have a publisher? Does he have a deadline? Does he have a job? If he doesn't have a set finishing date then set one anyway and make sure he sticks to it. Cut his ethernet cable in two with a sturdy pair of scissors and tell him to write the damn thing, otherwise it'll never get finished and, no matter how clever you think he is, he'll still be researching it when he's forty and fishing in the sofa for change.
posted by joannemullen at 4:43 AM on April 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

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