Historical novelists are world-class procrastinators. We spend days putting off the moment of writing by telling ourselves, and others, that we’re busy researching. Of course research is important. It’s also easier than writing, particularly on those occasions when scanning library shelves or scrolling through web pages spins off in fascinating and undreamed of directions. I once spent three days researching the pay of an 18th-century hangman — well, half a day’s research, and two and a half days of astonishment, horror and thrill at clickbait discoveries that had nothing to do with my hangman’s pay.In academic writing workshops with Humanities PhD students at the writing-up stage, procrastination often surfaces as a problem. They are concerned that although their research is supposed to be almost completed, just beyond the horizon lies the tiny discovery, the crucial fact, the key that’s going to turn their thesis into gold. A perennial question from students is ‘how do you know when it’s a horizon too far’?
It’s a hard question to answer, but just as successful gold panners can’t sieve every stream, successful writers can’t consult every source. If, when you’re supposed to be writing, you compile new lists of websites or research papers and open several online journals, you’re setting yourself up to procrastinate. Students already know this, but hearing that similar procrastination is also a problem for professional writers often relieves the worry that ‘it’s just me’, and we discuss the problem together.
We also discuss timing. In my view, at the writing-up stage, research for queries that suddenly surface should take up no more than a third of the writing time allotted for the day, and should always be preceded by writing. In other words, writing something in the body of your Work in Progress (WiP) should be the first task of the day, coming before answering any of the previous day’s queries. Why? Could it be because if you don’t start the day by getting words onto the screen, you may never get the words down at all?