• M. Christine Benner Dixon

The Rockstar and the Band: Tips for Writing and Research

Updated: Jul 13, 2020

There's no question who the star of the show is. She's front and center, rocking out like there's no tomorrow. Those 20,000 people screaming at her feet bought tickets with her name on them. But she's not up there alone. And neither are you.

To be a great writer, you don't have to carry encyclopedias of knowledge around in your brain. The writing process is often a learning process, too. Knowing that you need to educate yourself on a topic, you begin to accumulate a mountain of relevant knowledge through research. But when it's time to turn that mountain of research into cogent writing, it can start to feel more like a landslide. So, how do you let your backup band shine without losing your own voice? Here are some tips that might help:

1. Research Hungry

Before you even crack the books (or internet search), get yourself good and hungry for your research. What questions are driving you? What are the areas where you feel your preexisting knowledge is a little thin? Figure exactly what you're craving. This could be anything from historical context to statistics. Working on my novel, my research questions have ranged from "How do you make cedar shakes?" to "How has the religious impulse manifested in cultures around the world and across time?" Knowing what you're hungry for can help you stay focused in your search for relevant materials. Think about it like finding a drummer for your backup band. If you just advertise for 'a percussionist,' you may end up with a slew of marimba players at the audition. Be explicit about what you need.


2. Comparison Shop

Once you have a source with perspectives and details that seem useful, go find another source that backs up what you've found and one that (credibly) contradicts it. Let's say you are writing about plans to widen a local thoroughfare, and you find a press release from the city lauding this development as a solution to all our traffic woes--make sure you also read that study that shows that wide streets are, counter-intuitively, a contributing factor to congestion. Even if you don't agree, your research can help you understand that perspective and deepen your argument. For my novel, I have been using texts translated from a language I cannot not read. Having multiple different translations of the same text side-by-side was helpful in getting to the heart of what the original actually says. I didn't quote them all, but it helped me know how to think about them. Similarly, you might not end up using all the "verify" or "contradict" sources, but they have provided context. After all, when you are auditioning your drummers, you don't stop after the first audition just because they were pretty good. You hear them all.


3. Go Back for Seconds

And . . . we're back to food. Pardon the mixed metaphors. Research is something that happens more than once in the writing process. It's a great idea to do research early to fill in known gaps in your expertise, but you don't always know exactly where your writing will take you at the beginning of a project, so don't call it quits after the first round of research. Research is an all-you-can-eat buffet. If you need just a little more of something--or you missed the spicy green beans the first time through, go back for more! As you figure out where you're going, the research responds. To put this in terms of your backup band, this is the part where you ask them to learn a new song. It's a given. This is why you put the band together in the first place. So go back as often as you need and get more statistics, history, philosophical perspectives, personal stories--whatever it is you need to sing your song.


4. Take Center Stage

You have permission. Each band member is a talented musicians in their own right. They could be (or even have been) the main attraction in a concert of their own. But this is your show, baby. Take the center microphone. Of course your research is important and relevant and worthy of note, but you are the writer here. Your purpose, your argument, your story moves us forward, not your research. You have brought in these other voices to support your objective, not to overwhelm it. So as long as you're not essentially changing what your sources are saying, feel free to paraphrase, summarize, or quote as serves your purpose. If you find a book that has a single chapter relevant to your purpose, you don't necessarily have to read the whole book cover to cover (though you might want to skim through to be sure that you aren't missing something important). If you feel your sources pulling you away from your original plan, ask yourself whether you actually want to go in this new direction or whether you maybe need to put out a new ad for a drummer.


5. Share the Spotlight

Just because you are front and center doesn't mean you don't let the other musicians have their moment to shine. Making room for a kickass bass solo doesn't make you less of a rockstar. Quite the opposite. Pulling out a really stunning quotation that speaks to your purpose with authority, eloquence, or clarity showcases your judgment as a writer. You know when someone else is nailing it in a way that you can't do on your own, and you welcome the addition to your show. And, like a good and gracious rockstar, you give credit to your bassist, publicly and loudly. Cite your sources!


Okay, writer, now it's your turn. Figure out what you need, find it, and rock on!

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