planning v creativity in academic writing

Now a lot of people know that I’m an advocate of planning your writing. I’m not a great fan of just writing and just writing and then editing and just writing again and editing some more. I know people do this and I know that it works for some of them. But I also see rather a lot of people for whom endless bouts of free writing don’t ever actually produce the goods. They never get to the point sharply enough and their argument is waffly. They end up with something diffuse and they aren’t sure why. That’s why Barbara and I work with Tiny Texts as a way of trying to get clear what you’re writing about before you generate pages and pages of stuff. However, this post is not another general rave about why it’s worth trying out a more planned approach to academic writing.

No, I’ve been wondering about the underlying reasons that some people are resistant to planning. “ I just don’t work that way”, they say, refusing to give it a go. I’ve a hunch that one of the things that these people don’t like about planning is that it seems too logical and predetermined. Just writing and just writing seems to be much more creative – the juices flow, whatever is in your head flops onto the page and sometimes it goes in unexpected places. It’s like doodling, playing with clay – it’s a more artistic kind of process – right?

Well, no. A lot of artists don’t in fact do this. Some do. But many artists set themselves rules with which they work, or they’ve invented routine exercises that they do to get started. What can look like doodling or just mucking about with clay, can in fact be quite a disciplined process of thinking through doing, within rules.

But writing… you might think that writing with a plan is drudgery. The only creative bit is when you’re making the plan and then you just follow it. It’s just like painting with numbers when you’ve worked out what you want to say – right? Well, no.

Let me explain through an example. I’ve just finished a literature review for a funded research project. The review was organised around a set of questions, which I blogged about here. I sorted out these questions, assembled my texts around each question, and I had sets of folders of pdfs sorted into sub-questions. I started the process in a very, very planned way. I knew the order of moves in the argument, and I just had to go through each folder to accomplish them. Couldn’t get anything less creative if I’d tried – right? Well, no.

There was still quite a lot of wiggle room left within the structure I’d created for myself. I still had to find a way to group the texts within each question, to find a way to put them together so that the text was readable, to identify the key issues for the research project, and to achieve this in a way which made sense to the funder – so to non-academic but interested, well-informed and intelligent readers. I had a lot of synthesizing of information to do, and a lot of rhetorical work to do on the text.

The closest analogy I can think of is that it was like cooking at the end of the week, knowing that (a) I had a particular set of assorted and not necessarily matching ingredients in the bottom of the fridge and (b) that I was going to make some kind of stew-ish concoction that would be served in a bowl with bread. Anyone who watches those ubiquitous cooking programmes, or who reads/watches Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries, knows that it is no less creative to cook with a restricted set of ingredients, than with an open pantry. A lot of creativity is still required to work within the restrictions that exist. And that’s just how it is with a writing plan. There’s less time spent gazing at the blank screen, the cooking equivalent of the full pantry, because there is already a structure set up to work with – a certain set of stuff that has to be used/used up.

And in the end, just like those bottom of the fridge/end of the week cooking tasks, the literature review that I produced did have some surprises for me. It wasn’t exactly what I’d thought at the start because of the creative decisions I’d had to make along the way. While my literature review followed the plan that I had established, I hadn’t seen at the start the way to put the pieces together as neatly as they ended up. As I worked through the plan, finding the themes in each chunk of stuff, and the cross-references between them, there was still a lot of bits that required a lot of creative decision-making. I hadn’t thought that I’d be able to so clearly extract a set of key tensions in English policy and practice using literatures from the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – but I did. I hadn’t expected at the start that the end literature review would be a document that might be used for wider consultation – but it was. That possibility only started to dawn on me about a third of the way through. The rules and structure of questions and sub-questions that I’d set for myself actually supported the scholarly creative imagination that is required for this kind of academic work.

Now, my recent literature review experience is congruent with the literatures on creativity. Creativity doesn’t just mean an ‘aha’ moment, or letting your mind go anywhere. It can be, but that’s not how it often is. It‘s often working within a structure and a set of limits. Ask anyone who writes haiku, iambic pentameters or short stories, or anyone who paints in shades of one colour or takes only black and white photographs – structure is just a way of creating boundaries, not what can be done within them. To equate structure and planning with a lack of creativity is a big mistake.

So to those people who are afraid that planning will ruin your creativity I have to say, it won’t. Don’t be afraid of planning your writing. It’s not a barrier to being creative and in fact may be just the reverse. Or perhaps I can just say, Viva la Tiny Text. Viva writing plans.

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, creativity, literature review, planning, planning a paper and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to planning v creativity in academic writing

  1. Paul Kleiman says:

    Serendipity is wonderful and exciting…..but so much better if it is planned for! 🙂


  2. Paul Kleiman says:

    More seriously, your piece reflects my very recent experience of writing and completing a book chapter for a book on learning and teaching.

    Though I tend to situate myself more on the non-planning than planning end of the planning spectrum…it is a spectrum, and you can over-plan just in the same way you can over-design, leaving little or no room for creativity. I know a number of students who find the ‘restrictions’ of the traditional academic essay stifling. They write very good essays, because they’re bright, able and understand the ‘rules’. But there’s very little or no creativity involved, and they’re frustrated.

    In my own case, I play jazz piano, and my approach to writing is not dissimilar. Unless it’s a completely free improvisation (i.e. I have no idea where it might lead), I usually know the tune or theme, have a rough idea of where I want to get to and how long I want to play for. But the process is more akin to constant pattern-recognition/making/re-making within a loose framework.


    • pat thomson says:

      Yes of course. I’m not arguing against free writing or that it can go with planning,. My point is simply that people who refuse to try planning may actually be worried about a false dichotomy. There are lots of ways to put the two together once you accept the premise that they aren’t antithetical.


  3. I absolutely agree with Paul that there is a spectrum here. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of planning vs creativity. I think some people (and I’m one of them) associate planning with outlining, and have a problem with its linearity. I’m capable of wasting a lot of time, and sometimes getting completely stuck, trying to decide what should go first, and what should be a subset of what. I find freewriting and mind-mapping useful techniques to get around that problem, and help me generate tiny texts and outlines. So for me, free writing has become part of the planning process, not its opposite.


    • pat thomson says:

      Yes. I’m simply arguing against either/or in this post and suggesting it is both/and. The write then plan approach is exactly what was advocated by its originator Peter Elbow see my old post I tend to use a more structured free write approach in workshops, leading to planning, more like that advocated by Patricia Goodson in her book on writing exercises. See I AM arguing for planning which is not the same as an outline. Outlines can fall into the trap of just stating the content, not the argument. The task in socsci and arts humanities academic writing is always finding the argument. That’s what people usually have most difficulty with.


      • maelorin says:

        i am experimenting with a process of writing, then planning, then reverse-outlining, then editing/rewriting loop.

        i have very definitely had to pull myself out of collecting-sources (there are always more papers, reports, articles, blogs), and force myself to focus on argument first. i develop argument through writing. once i have sketched out an argument, i go back over it: identifying where i need sources, need clarification, need evidence. *then* i go to my library, knowing what i’m looking for – what to pay attention to.

        my problem has not been argument, so much as managing the avalanche of literature – that grows daily – and trying to get my argument out before too much changes in the environment/literature :/ [i probably still suffer from pseudo-academic anxiety, as well].

        i have found some useful ideas, and processes, on this blog (and others like it) that are improving how i get writing done; which in turn is hopefully improving my writing. I know I can write – i have publications – but writing 80-100,000 words of coherent argument is daunting when i have only written as many as 10,000 or so in a single piece twice: one of those being my most recent publication as part of my PhD.


  4. maelorin says:

    It’s interesting how people assume that planning isn’t creative. How many different ways can one organise a set of ideas, or questions? Or reword them. And just how many questions or sections or chunks is enough?

    I start with a rough word budget, then break that up into generic blocks (intro, body, conclusion). This gets refined by writing out the purpose of the writing: the central question, or idea. First, I guesstimate the goodly-sized chunks of ‘body’ text that I can devote to explaining or elaborating on this central theme. Only then do I rough out section headings/topics/ questions.

    For example, a 2000 word piece broken up into 10-80-10% chunks gives me a budget of 200 words for intro and conclusion, and 1600 words for the bulk. This could be eight 200 word blocks, but factoring in linking sentences, and recapitulating the relationships between ideas – probably about 10% – I really have 1400 words to play with to build my case. If this will require meaty discussions, perhaps each sub-section ought to be about 400-500 words each. So three main section headings.

    I go back to the key problem or question and ask myself which three (maybe four) key ideas would be sensible to address. Here pre-reading helps assess the viability of my proposed scope. What needs to be written always decides in the end, but having a rough budget helps me be realistic about how much I can fit in, and thus be ruthless in deciding what must, should, and could be addressed: and thus prioritise my argument, and therefore the sources and resources I use and refer to.

    This helps me, a perfectionist-procrastinator by nature, get to the heart of what actually needs to get done – and filters out a lot of distractions. I can then obsess over details and phrasing, knowing that everything I have at hand can be ‘in’ the final text.

    For me, it matters a great deal to have pre-selected the majority of my sources, against a concrete framework of ‘relevance’ AND ‘priority’. I have also found that the process of selecting papers based upon how much they can contribute to my *whole* argument, or how well they contribute to specific sub- sections, helps me focus as I wade through abstracts, searches, and summaries.

    My literature archive spans gigabytes of storage. I use the above, plus the limitations of free-to-use online ‘cloud’ storage (eg Dropbox or Box), to corral my focus to a few dozen articles at any one time. (The legal-, technological-, and public-policy-oriented literatures on privacy are vast :/)


  5. Kip Jones says:

    My definition of creativity: ‘Working within rule boundaries, whilst, at the same time, somehow changing them’. For me, it’s a process. Writing (creatively) means letting go of a lot of the ‘rules’ of other kinds of writing. Or playing with them. Or changing them in the process of producing an output.
    I often say (to other academics particularly) that the scholar spends 3/4 of the time planning, scheming, outlining, (worrying) before producing. An artist thinks by means of the act of doing. It’s a very different process.


    • pat thomson says:

      I think it varies with art forms and with artists and with the project. Some writers spend a lot of time planning and plotting, as do say for example some designers and some sculptors. The sketch book can be just doing, or it can be planning. Da Vinci was a planner but perhaps only some of the time .


  6. My immediate reaction to the title and initial words was to feel antagonistic, to locate myself as oppositional to ‘planning’ writing which, I argued to myself, SHOULD be a creative process, especially in the increasingly corporate environment of higher education. But I very quickly realised that this claim to creativity AS free writing was not actually how I write, nor, as you rightly point out, how artists actually create. My thoughts turned to a current piece of writing, a piece that is incredibly heartfelt for me, and deliberately leans towards the lyrical rather than the scientific. And this current writing rests upon free flowing writing. Drawing on ideas first encountered in your blog I have experimented with using the spare environment of Omniwriter. It excites me, allows me to press forward with ideas carried and revealed and formed by the words without worrying about spelling or presentation. BUT, as this first experimentation turned into a more concrete first-person autoethnography I WANTED, indeed NEEDED, planning. Although the full structure is not yet revealed to me – sometimes the narrative takes the writer places they did not necessarily know they would or could go, it became clear that in order to link my private problem tot he public issues I wanted to speak to I needed the kind of deliberation that only planning could provide. Using tools such as Evernote I have collated resources that suggest sections or moves in the narrative, certain debates I want to enter, certain communities I want to move in and through. The collating of articles, for instance, takes on the quality of doodling sometimes, can become the very act of sketching without absolute purpose, just to see what MIGHT be possible. Each new section has a beginning as a form of free writing that suggests a mood, or voices. But I reach a point where I need to articulate with ‘fields’ and ‘debates’ and ‘literatures’, and this often takes me (in this particular piece of writing) into writing platforms with more editing capability. And alongside this, I always have a fountain pen and notebook; a substantial pice of technology, leather-bound to attest to the importance of lies within. And what lies within? Doodles, sketches, phrases, paragraphs, plans for drawing on the articles and chapters and books.


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  8. James Harlan says:

    I agree with you Pat that planning plays an important role in academic writing. Just like they say, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Therefore, plan and succeed. That’s how a real artist works on their piece.


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