So you’ve got an idea and a stack of books. Whether or not your college composition class included They Say, I Say you know that writing an academic piece is stepping into a conversation, and you can’t do that without listening first. The plan is to work your way through the foundational texts and then pick up the more recent works, but how long does this part last? At what point can you stop worrying you’ve missed something important and just … start writing?
This is kind of a trick question. I’ve worded it the way a lot of people approach it: first research, then writing. Finish one line on your to-do list, and then move to the next. But, even though this is a wonderful method for procrastination that doesn’t feel like procrastination, it’s not actually the best way to approach your writing.
It’s a very good way to make sure you never start your writing.
And it’s completely understandable. Writing is hard enough without worrying that you’ve left out some piece of information that the critics will immediately grab and try to wave in your face. Before stepping into the conversation, you want to make sure that you’ve listened to all sides and you’ve got it all down. It’s a scary move, trying to make a point when you feel like you don’t have all the information.
Your first draft isn’t when you step into the conversation. In academics, as in fiction, the first draft is just you telling it to yourself. It doesn’t have to be perfect, because yours are the only eyes that will see it, until you decide otherwise. Your first draft is just for you, and you should start writing as soon as possible. It shouldn’t be research and then writing, but research and writing, happening alongside each other.
You also don’t have to pause in the middle of the page to stop and actually do that research. My first drafts include a number of things in brackets, highlighted, or both, telling me what I’m missing and what I’ll need to put in later. Sometimes it’s just tracking down a quote I know I have, but at the time I didn’t want to interrupt my writing flow to do it. Other times there’s a gap where I know I need more research, but for now I mark the hole so I know what to look for later.
Does this mean my first draft looks like swiss cheese? Sometimes. The further you get into a topic, the fewer holes you’ll have. But does it also mean I’ve beaten both the “blank page terror” and the “but when do I start writing” question? Yes, indeed
If you’re asking yourself if it’s time to start writing today, then “today” is the second-best time for you to start. The first is always in the past, so let it go, and get some words on the page. You won’t get anything published, or get anyone else’s eyes on it (the point at which you do start to join the conversation) until it’s written.
You’ll never be able to read everything on your subject. If someone catches an omission during the review process, excellent. (It also means you’ve got a finite number of pages to read to make your revisions, so don’t get tempted to fall down the rabbit hole again here.) If a critic comes back at you with this one apparently essential piece you missed, earmark that for later reading, too, but also note that this is apparently the only critique they could think of. (Is there personal experience speaking here? It seems likely.) A good review will address questions of your position and argument, and not some article the reviewer has read that you apparently haven’t.
As much sense as it seems to make to finish up your reading before you write, it’s really just a procrastination tactic. And people don’t really work like that, either: all in, and then all out. If you keep reading as you write, and keep exposing yourself to new ideas and new ways of writing, you’ll also be able to sustain longer projects without getting fatigued. (I often refer to reading as “putting words back in my brain,” which is useful, considering how many have to come out of it.)
How do you know when it’s time to stop researching and start writing? You don’t. You never will. So start writing.