This is a guide by Charlotte Frost to the many different stages of producing a piece of academic writing. Often we lump all these stages together and get overwhelmed. Here you’re reminded there are at least 10 different stages to academic writing and that by treating each differently, you can break your writing into more manageable chunks. If you think we’ve missed a step or you have a different way of thinking about one of these 10 tasks then please tell us more in the comments section.
1. The mental preparation stage
Before you do anything, take 5-10 minutes to purge your mind. Write down everything that’s whirring around in your head from errands you have to run to things that are worrying you. It could take the form of a list, a scattered network of things or even a diary entry (why would so many people write diaries if it wasn’t so incredibly useful in making sense of your own head? And besides, therapists can be really expensive!) Sometimes we can’t see the wood for the trees, so sitting down and writing whatever comes to mind can be a good way of getting some of the distracting ideas out of your way. You might even turn up something useful for your work. But either way, empty your head of all these details before you start. You might also like to keep this page to hand while you’re working so you can continue to dump the distractions.
2. The note-taking stage
Never just read, never just take notes. Always make these as active and targeted as possible. I made my own summary cover sheet during my PhD without realising someone else had already devised a better one in the 1950s called the Cornell Note Taking System. There are 3 principles/parts of the Cornell note page. A large right-hand section for writing brief notes which you complete at the time of reading/listening. Two smaller sections to the left and to the bottom where you draw out the essential themes and questions of the piece and write a brief summary. There are even tools to create Cornell note page templates for yourself here and here.
4. The brainstorming stage
You might not need this stage. If you’ve got all your notes beautifully organised as per the Cornell and literature survey matrix techniques, all the arguments you want to make might be perfectly clear to you. It might be as simple as just taking each set of notes and fleshing them out. However, sometimes we get stuck or need to combine a lot of different ideas in one section. This might need a different approach. First brainstorm it. Give yourself five minutes and write down everything you can think of that relates to the topic at hand. Be as fast and as unfiltered as you can. Take no time to over-think any choice. Even if it seems random, put it down. And as long as you’re working on the same project, never destroy this early catchment area of ideas. Something that seems irrelevant for a long time can suddenly take on meaning later.
5. The mind mapping stage
Take your brainstorming and make a proper mind map with the ideas. This is the time when you organise the ideas and give them structure. The Thesis Whisperer uses a ‘spider diagram’ approach for mapping out ideas and has a worksheet to help you do this. Or there’s the Tony Buzan technique, which he claims is set out to mirror the way we think. For Buzan’s method, the key is that nothing by the central topic is enclosed in anyway, rather all ideas are written along the sides of each connecting line. This way, he says, everything has the potential to connect to something else. Really the main difference is that you can get more on a Buzan map, which is great for really complicated/intricate ideas or ideas you’ll want to add to as you go along. I’ve kept Buzan-style maps for topics and added over several months to keep an overview in once place.
6. The ‘Tiny Text’ stage
The Thesis Whisperer suggests that once you’re through researching and brainstorming, you write a ‘tiny text’. This is like a conference abstract that will give you the structure for the work you’re about to produce. I’ve combined several approaches to this and come up with a 7 part template. As soon as you’re ready to work on your paper/chapter/section, run it through this system writing just a sentence for each point.
- Focus: Broadly important fact or relevant story (In….)
- Literature: What has been said already? (It is argued that…)
- Gap: What hasn’t been said already? (However….)
- Urgency: Why is it important right now? (Without….)
- Question: What needs to be asked? (This research asks…)
- Methods: How (By analysing…)
- Implications: What practical or philosophical impact will this have? (This research shows…)
Credit: Gerald Graff, Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson, Karen Kelsky, Inger Mewburn
7. The splurge/spew stage
Open up a document and if you’ve collected lots of organised notes, copy and paste/type them into the document. Now write up all the connecting sections as fast as you can. Or, if you’re working without these prepared notes, just write as much of the argument as you can in one session. If you do it the second way round (without the organised notes) use [insert here] to leave yourself clear markers for the material that will need adding such as summaries of other texts, quotes or examples. (But either way, use the ‘tiny text’ as a structure to keep yourself on course and be quick about it).
or rather the thinking writing stage
This is the stage where you are using your writing to tell you what you’ve got. You aren’t ready to show those ideas to the world yet, instead, you’re going to think them through in words on a page. For many of us, it is only at this point that the actual ideas come out. You might know you want to connect so-and-so’s theory with such-and-such but it might not be until you try to do this in words that you see just what the implications of that connection are. The point is that this is the stage of writing where you make it work for you, you use the act of writing to think through your ideas.
or even the keep it pacey
If possible, you do it fast because you’ll see much sooner if you’ve got enough of an idea/argument. If you can do this rough draft in one sitting, you’ll know straight away if you can make this point/write this section with the research you’ve already done, or if it’s too thin and you need to read/think some more. But (as I’m about to say) don’t over-think this part, it’s about getting words and ideas down in what ever form they take.
and certainly it’s the uncritical stage
Indeed, this is also the uncritical stage. When trying to think-write and/or rough-draft, you just want to get ideas down and nothing more. Even if you can write a pretty solid draft at this stage (thanks to being well read/prepared) you want to just write it up and leave it alone – don’t even think about editing at this point. This is not the time for that! In her book from the 1930s, Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande described it as the stage of writing where you turn off your inner critic and let your thoughts run free. And she suggests that to make sure you don’t criticise your work, you shouldn’t read any of it back at this point. She urges you write your words and walk away. Tools for plain writing that can help with the uncritical, fast, splurgey stage of writing include: 750 Words; WriteRoom: DarkRoom.
8. The ‘doing writing’ stage/the draft
Another way to think about what happens after the ‘thinking writing’ is the doing writing. You’ve got your ideas down, you’ve read them through, there does seem to be a substantial argument to make and enough material to do it with. Now you turn your writing around. You’re not using the act of writing to think, you’re using it to do (to show, demonstrate, argue – fight, even). Look at each sentence and convert it from a thought or rough idea, to a statement that presents that idea clearly to others.
which might also be the therapy stage
I wrote a blog post for AcWriMo and PhD2published in 2012 on using 750Words as a writing therapist. Basically, when I get to a certain point, or when I get stuck, I use an empty doc/writing app to ask myself questions about what I’m doing and whether I’m achieving it. I literally ask myself: what’s the problem with this section? And then, as I answer myself, I find – and write my way out of – the issue. In the example I used for the blog post, I’d lost track of why I was trying to summarise ideas about new materialism. By the time I’d asked myself a set of questions about this, I’d found what I was stuck on AND I’d written about it and much of what I’d written turned out to be perfectly useable in the actual draft. Your supervisor can’t talk you out of every confusion so you need to learn to do it yourself.
9. The critical stage
If you follow Brande then at the very earliest, the next day is the first point at which you can turn your critical voice back on. This is when the editing begins and you’re invited to need to release your inner critic. If you’ve got a lot of writing done, preferably without over-thinking it, you now ask questions of that work and begin to shape the material into something more coherent. Let your critical side be a bit brutal, chopping irrelevant parts, making substitutions and forming better alliances between sections.
10 The darling-i-cide stage
‘Killing your darlings’ is the name given to the brutal part of editing when you take out the parts you love but which are clearly not contributing anything to the argument (a ‘darling’ is often an overly wordy or self-indulgent sentence/paragraph). In fiction this might even mean taking out an entire character, or some elegant phrases that don’t move the story forwards. In academic writing it’s probably a tangent or an idea that fascinates you but distorts the argument at hand.
or rather, darling exile…
There are two ways to make this easier on yourself.
1.Use strikethrough. That way you can read the document without these parts and confirm in your own mind that they do have to go before you actually delete them.
2.Don’t delete them at all, just banish them to another location. Start a document, note or folder for all the bits you take out. Trust me, for every thesis there’s a huge archive of unused material that means a great deal to the thesis writer (perhaps it even contains the nugget of an idea they started with). But you have to be tough. What your thesis needs to do is make a point and make it clearly. The best way to help yourself achieve that end goal is to remove anything that will get in the way of clarity.