In college, I was terrible at doing proper research. I mean truly awful, though I usually still managed to write decent papers. Probably in part because I really just wanted to do the writing, and not the researching. Or, since these are essays we’re talking about and not fiction, it’s possible I just wanted to get to the end and have done with it.
Fortunately, a fantastic teacher my senior year managed to explain what research actually is and how to do it in a way that clicked with me, and though I only had about a half a semester in which to actually make proper use of it, I now get it. Or I do enough to keep an interest in it, at least!
For me, it’s tied into the idea of writing what you know. I’m going to have a much better chance of writing an epic and believable sword fight if I know the first thing about how sword fights usually go. And not just what it looks like in various blockbuster movies, no matter how much fun they are to watch. If I know what it’s supposed to look like, then I know what I can tweak for the sake of the “cool” factor without running the risk of accidentally taking out something structural.
It’s also a great way to immerse myself in the world I’m trying to create. Instead of feeling like research is something I have to get out of the world before I can get to the actual fun stuff, it’s a way for me to get into the same world I’m planning to write about at a deeper level that will make it easier to write once I actually get down to it. I may not be a skilled sword-fighter myself, but if I know how long it takes someone to become a master in our world, and what weaknesses they might have, and what the strengths of their particular style are, I’ll be able to add those details in (or at least make sure that I don’t accidentally contradict them), and that’s only going to add to my writing.
With an essay or a research paper, the trick was to make sure I worked on a paper I was interested in. Which sadly, for research papers, was sometimes a lot easier said than done, or else the topic was specific enough that it was tailored to what we’d already read in class. But the paper that helped me figure out how to research was one that I was curious about but didn’t feel like I already knew the answer to, and that motivated me to go looking for them.
Or in other words, to do research.
Kind of on a side note, but that’s also what got me to start reading non-fiction for fun as well. If a writer is writing truth about the world, about people, about reality, then the more we learn about that same world, about psychology, history, life, death– everything– the better we will be at writing. And that takes a certain humility. It’s hard to look for answers if you already think you have them all. But if you know there’s everything you don’t know, there’s nothing at all to stop you from looking and learning.