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.