Do You Research Before You Write?
Some great thoughts from Robert Penn Warren on researching material before writing a book.
This comes from an interview he did with The Paris Review in 1957.
What is the relation of sociological research and other types of research to the forms of fiction?
I think it’s purely accidental. For one writer a big dose of such stuff might be fine, for another it might be poison. I’ve known a good many people, some of them writers, who think of literature as material that you “work up.” You don’t “work up” literature. They point at Zola. But Zola didn’t do that, nor did Dreiser. They may have thought they did, but they didn’t. They weren’t “working up” something—in one sense, something was working them up. You see the world as best you can—with or without the help of somebody’s research, as the case may be. You see as much as you can, and the events and books that are interesting to you should be interesting to you because you’re a human being, not because you’re trying to be a writer. Then those things may be of some use to you as a writer later on. I don’t believe in a schematic approach to material. The business of researching for a book strikes me as a sort of obscenity. What I mean is, researching for a book in the sense of trying to find a book to write. Once you are engaged by a subject, are in your book, have your idea, you may or may not want to do some investigating. But you ought to do it in the same spirit in which you’d take a walk in the evening air to think things over. You can’t research to get a book. You stumble on it, or hope to. Maybe you will, if you live right.
In so many words, I think RPW is essentially saying “write what you know” or maybe “write what you’re passionate about.”
This line jumped out at me:
The business of researching for a book strikes me as a sort of obscenity. What I mean is, researching for a book in the sense of trying to find a book to write.
That doesn’t mean you can’t do research to find something to write about. But, whatever you choose, it probably won’t be something that drives you.
With that motivation, you might pick a topic because it’s popular or because it will make money—not because it’s something that comes from your heart. And I think that’s what RPW meant when he called that approach an “obscenity.”
What do you think? How do you approach researching for your own writing?