Saturday, March 5, 2022

How Much Should You Know Before You Start Writing

When a piece of writing involves research, you might ask yourself when you’re ready to start writing. You want to have enough background information that you can recreate the world you are studying truly. You also want to know enough that you can identify with the subject you’re writing about, and maybe even gain some insight into those lives.

Let’s say you’re writing a short story or a poem that features the wonderful painter, Mary Cassatt. You should read at a very minimum the Wikipedia article on Cassatt. You might even read a really scholarly biography about the artist to pick out a detail here or there that will give your story the ring of authenticity. Here’s an example: it’s interesting that Cassatt, a woman artist, was good friends with Edgar Degas, a notorious misogynist.

Portrait of Mary Cassatt by Edgar Degas
The two of them sometimes even painted side-by-side. Imagine the great conversations! Think of their differing interactions with a model. If you were writing a full-length work about Mary Cassatt, a novel or a play based on her life, I would think you’d want to read multiple biographies in order to feel you were almost a Cassatt expert.

But is it possible to research a subject too much before you start writing about it? I listened to a fascinating panel on historical plays at a conference of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) several years ago. One of the panelists, Deborah Brevoort, had been commissioned to write a play about Martha Washington, the wife of George Washington. In researching her topic before she started writing, Brevoort discovered that Martha Washington kept up a lively and extensive correspondence with her husband. Perfect material for a play, right? Unfortunately, after George Washington died, Martha burned all their letters. What a disaster! What surprised me was Brevoort’s reaction to learning this. She was actually overjoyed. I was flummoxed, till I heard her next comment: “That meant I could make it up!”

Deborah Brevoort

When I thought about that, it made a lot of sense. In order to really get inside the experience of Martha Washington, the playwright had to find deep connections between the first First Lady’s life and her own. That’s not so easy if you have so many specific facts in your head that you can’t bend your subject’s story closer to your own. To make that play work emotionally, the playwright had to make herself into Martha Washington, and Martha Washington into her, to some degree, so she could write about that other life with real understanding and empathy. And that becomes almost impossible, if at the same time, you’re juggling countless historical facts.

So, how much research is enough, and how much is too much? You’ve done too much research if the knowledge you’ve accumulated becomes so detailed and specific that it impedes your personal identification with your topic and prevents you from writing. You haven’t done enough research if you still need more details and situations to create content that is believable and compelling both to you and your audience.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, BĂ©renice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry