just write – then plan, and write again – in #acwrimo and beyond

Someone asked me the other day whether I thought ‘just write’ was a good idea. It is something that I support, although always with the caveat that it doesn’t work for everyone. I call this ‘writing along the way’ because just write is writing that helps you get somewhere. But not everyone agrees with this position – see for example Three Month Thesis who says this is the worst advice ever. I suspect that this might be because the other half of the heuristic often gets lost – it’s not just write, but just write up to the point where you are able to make a plan.

Why just write? It is often very important to just write in order to find out what you think – and sometimes just write short pieces at speed, in order to overcome the pesky internal critic in your head that stops you writing anything. At some point, you MUST stop just write and work out a plan and an argument. However, when you’ve been just write-ing, you do end up with a lot of textual resource on which to base a plan – or The Tiny Text that I prefer. And in fact you may very well not try to edit what you produced as just write, but rather start anew and again, after the plan is made.

The position that just write is a Good Thing is not an urban myth or something that has been recently made up by a few people thinking online about the kind of writing that worked for them. Just write has quite a history in the field of writing research and there is a lot of empirical data about its efficacy. As a final contribution to #acwrimo, I though it would be appropriate to pay due respect to Peter Elbow, whose book Writing without teachers is often credited as being the origin of just write in the academic sphere.

In this little and quite old youtube clip – bear with it – Elbow describes how he came to understand the process of writing by systematically examining his own writing failure. The self-critical way in which he did this over a number of years is pretty instructive – he was examining himself as writer at the same time as he was writing, not a bad idea. Elbow then went on to conduct systematic research into other people’s academic writing. So this began the evidence base for saying that just write is useful – although of course not everywhere, not all the time, and not in all disciplines.

And as Elbow clearly points out, just write is not at all useful without the other half of the advice – just write, then plan, then write again.

Link here to Peter Elbow talking about just write -ing and then structuring the writing.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, acwrimo, just write, Peter Elbow, writer's block, writing, writing research and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to just write – then plan, and write again – in #acwrimo and beyond

  1. James Hayton says:

    The main problem I have with the “just write” approach is when people say, “sort the details out later”. It puts people under pressure to focus only on word count, and they can end up feeling like they aren’t going fast enough when actually what they need to do is slow down and sort the details out.

    For idea generation, free writing can be great, but there are severe limits to its use. Some ideas you cannot generate without doing research or spending some time thinking about what you want to say and how it fits in with what you said before.

    Though many people know how to effectively use the technique you’re talking about, it gets reduced to a soundbite; just get words down on the page, and without the necessary caveats it can become deeply harmful.


    • pat thomson says:

      Nothing about the theory suggests that you would substitute it for other research activities. Im sure Elbow and all the subsequent writing researchers would be appalled to think that their work was being interpreted to mean that. I cant imagine a PhD researcher being told by a supervisor that all they had to do was write. They clearly need to think, research, read, analyse etc , But writing is also actually thinking, not a separate act.


      • James Hayton says:

        I’m sure they would be appalled! And I’m sure you’d be surprised how many people fall into the trap of writing hundreds of unusable pages because they’ve followed the soundbite version of the advice.

        Unfortunately, most will just hear the soundbite and never read the theory!


      • pat thomson says:

        I see all kinds of writing issues, not just too much writing along the way, in writing workshops and courses. Being blocked and not writing anything is equally problematic, and just writing is very helpful in those circumstances, as well as for people who are time poor. I learnt about just writing uses when I taught reluctant white working class boys to read and write… its about the right tool in the right place and knowing why and about what tool when …


  2. Pingback: just write – then plan, and write again – in #acwrimo and beyond | Learning-Teaching | Scoop.it

  3. Pingback: just write – then plan, and write again – in #acwrimo and beyond | AcWriMo | Scoop.it

  4. I like the just write method. I find it works really well when done as part of a shut up and write session. A friend once told me “you can edit rubbish” and she was right! Thanks for the post.


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