Why Research Should Come Before Writing, Not After

Photo by Yair Mejía on Unsplash

In the Attention Economy, the pen is mightier than the sword. We writers compete for attention, hacking away at our competitors with every piece we publish. Yes, we hack. Volume is more relevant today than quality; the days where we admired the graceful swoops of the sword are long gone. We wield our pens more like axes, and the most prolific of us possess our admiration.

This is not to say that writing a lot and often can’t lead to good writing. But, we’re told not to overthink quality if we hope to survive the long, gruesome battle for a reader’s attention. What we lose in obeying this advice, however, is the truth.

The contradiction modern writers face

“Write, write, and write some more!” say the most successful of writers.

Having obeyed this advice, I admit there is some truth: Frequent writing makes better writing; greater time with the craft allows writers to more readily transform abstract thoughts into sentences that are proper and understandable. After sufficient practice, the process becomes more efficient. Quality can improve too.

On social media and online platforms, such as Medium, the advice to write more is also to help increase exposure. Writers don’t want to just write well, they want to be read too, and the more you write, the more likely it is for readers, and perhaps even machine learning algorithms, to find and promote your writing.

Frequency, of course, is measured over time.

Image by Author

Assuming time (t) to be one week, to increase frequency, we’ll have to increase the number of stories we write within that week. This implies a need to boost our writing speed in order to boost our frequency: To be prolific, we must produce more words in less time.

The contradiction starts when facts become important. Anyone can be a writer, but society also values authenticity. Unsupported claims, especially those scientific or quantitative in nature, incite great criticism — as they should.

Yet, citation alone is not enough to guarantee authenticity. This is contrary to our tendency to believe references as soon as they appear, especially if the subject matter aligns with our preexisting notions about the world.

On Medium, what more do we need than the mere presence of a hyperlink to give the writer our faith? Do we even bother to click?

In many instances, no. Just as writers, readers are also short on time. They’ve become vacuums, consuming anything that either:

  1. Is consistent with their preconceptions about the world.
  2. Appears to back its claims with evidence.

Whether the “evidence” in (2) is factual is a question readers can’t afford to ponder. Benefit of the doubt saves the writer and their story.

It’s not the what but the how of citations that’s problematic

Let’s be a little more generous with the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that most writers are not deceiving their readers with false information willfully; rather, they add citations because they value the truth and believe their readers deserve nothing but the truth.

Unfortunately, goodwill does not absolve consequence; and the reader might consume and integrate into their world view false information because of the process the writer took in doing their research.

For Bob, our fictional fitness writer, the process could be something as follows:

  1. Bob is convinced the way he does shoulder presses yields great results.
  2. Bob writes a Medium article, which is based largely on personal experience.
  3. Bob doesn’t want to look stupid, so he garnishes his claims with links to fitness blogs he finds in a quick Google search.
  4. Bob clicks “Add to publication,” gets accepted into his favorite publication, and feels great about himself.
  5. Bob happens to be a great writer; his article is curated and then goes viral.

Good for Bob, right? As writers, we’d like to emulate his methods for success.

However, unbeknownst to Bob is that his form is, from a kinesiological perspective, wrong. Thus, after following Bob’s article, readers are left with years of painful shoulder impingement. Dammit, Bob.

Immediate gratification, such as earnings on Medium, compels us to save research last, especially since Bob’s process turns out to be rather efficient. And so, just like Bob, we pop open another tab right before we hit “Publish” and Google something along the lines of: “Articles on how X is necessary” rather than, first, understanding X for what it actually is.

How researchers (should) research

Contrary to popular belief, researchers are not experts on their subject. Researchers research; and, in ideal circumstances, this means disposing of what one knows (or thinks they know) about a given subject before researching.

In doing so, the subject becomes stripped of all biases; and research commences with the intent to describe the subject as factually as possible. This means that even findings that do not align with the researcher’s personal views or previous findings deserve attention. When faced with a contentious view, it’s up to the researcher to do further research to either accept the view or, explicitly, argue against it should it fall within the scope of the thesis.

Cherry-picked research is not research

Real research is, thus, a process that’s uncomfortable and unwieldy for many writers. It’s quicker to write based on personal experience — and that’s okay.

Yet, the practice of dressing up stories with cherry-picked citations that align with our narrative is deceiving and potentially dangerous. It’s nothing more than confirmation bias — an intellectual masturbation that provides credibility while leaving us confident. But, with our moral compass, we should recognize this process delivers a message that’s skewed towards our own biases and not necessarily the truth.

The urge to succumb to confirmation bias is real. Having published a scientific article and written undergraduate and master’s theses, I’m sure that not even academia is impervious. But if such practices were made transparent, would an academic journal accept the author’s paper? Would you?

Authentic writing starts with holding ourselves accountable for delivering the truth. Understanding the truth — that comes before writing, not after.

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Japanese-speaking environmentalist and tech nerd. Essays and short stories are my thing.

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Rahul D. Ghosal

Rahul D. Ghosal

Japanese-speaking environmentalist and tech nerd. Essays and short stories are my thing.

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