writing thesis chapters? beware ‘blocky’ writing

It’s very common to read academic texts, particularly thesis chapters, which present themselves to the reader as a series of blocks of stuff. Each big block of stuff may well be divided up into smaller sub-headed blocks.

This is not ideal.  Blocks can be a real problem for readers.

When supervisors read chapters that are blocks of material they often suggest that the text lacks flow, or it doesn’t yet have an argument, or it is incoherent. They may suggest that the blocks don’t connect sufficiently to the actual research that the writer is doing. In saying this, the supervisor is pointing to the fact that the chapter lacks a narrative ‘thread’. They cannot find a coherent line of argument, all the way through, from start to finish.

Sometimes the supervisor might suggest – or you decide for yourself – that the answer to the flow and transition problem is to add in more signposting. Alas. This is often not the best move. Simply saying In the last section I did this and now Im going to do that isn’t going to fix the block problem.  Nor is occasional sentence which says this means x for my research. The solution is not to add in a few things, but rather to step back to look at how the narrative needs to go. It is the overall narrative – and in most cases this is an argument – that creates coherence.

Using a backward mapping or reverse outline as a diagnostic strategy will clearly show whether you have a blocky writing problem. The strategy requires you to look at all of your topic sentences to see if they form a cohesive narrative. (Racheal @explorestyle has a very concise description of how to reverse outline.) Once you have your sentences you can clearly see the problem and begin to sort out how to rewrite.

But it is better to get coherence sorted at the start, rather than fixing up the blockiness as a retro-fit. How to avoid the big blocky revision? How to focus on the narrative at the outset?

One strategy is to use an outline. But blocky writing is often the result of an outline made up of bullets and chunks of material – ideas from the literature, quotations, bits of data analysis. The answer is that, rather than make your outline developed as amplified bullet points, develop your outline as a sequence of sentences.

Let me illustrate the difference. A block outline might look like this.

5644838033_8890fc2219_bMethods chapter:

  1. Action research
  2. Cycle One
  3. Reflection and use of diaries
  4. Cycle Two
  5. Analysis
  6. Ethics

This is a list of content. It isn’t a narrative or an argument.

What often happens next is that people take each of these points and then add in key content. So 1. in the outline above might become:

  1. Action research
  • Difference from other research
  • Three traditions
  • Cycles
  • Reflection and data analysis.

When the writer comes to writing from the block outline, they write about each of these sub-points, adding in the required detail.

6086229920_4dc2e1a941_bAnd what most often happens is that this ends up reading as blocks of stuff.

What’s more, it usually ends up reading like a a methods essay about action research than anything that is related to the actual project at hand. There might be a sentence or two here or there which connects the blocks of stuff to the research ( the add-in connection) , but the overall narrative is not about the particular research.

Outline planning in sentences looks different.  The example above could go something like this.

  1. This research uses action research because:
  • We wanted to research and manage the change at the same time, we can’t afford a lengthy failed experiment
  • We needed an emergent design so we could adjust what we were doing as we went along, hence AR
  • We looked at three types of action research. 
  • We are doing participatory research.
  • We opted for PAR because it allows many people to do the planning and data analysis; this creates ownership, spreads the learning
  • We have used three PAR cycles
  • We have used diaries and discussion for reflection and thematic analysis of artefacts and interviews.

These sentences position the writer and the writing at the start to talk about action research and their research at the same time. The sentences allow a discussion of action research, its traditions, debates and practice in relation to their research and the specific process they used.

Using the sentences as a guide means that the writer organises their material around the narrative ‘red thread’ not an abstract discussion. They don’t need to make a special effort to add in a bit here or there to make a connection with their project, that’s built in. They won’t need to add in a huge amount of signposting at the start of the section or at various points through the text, because they can make the purpose of the section clear through the actual narrative.

But you don’t need to do all this I hear you say? Well of course. You can just use bullet points and bits of material and write a narrative with a clear read thread. Experienced academic writers do this all the time without even thinking about it. However, not everyone does or can. The presence of blocky writing attests to the fact that many people find it tricky moving from accumulating their various bits of stuff to taking charge of the material and telling the story of their research.

And some people are bound to feel that writing in baby sentences – as in the example above – is a bit silly. Demeaning even. So an alternative is to write a chapter abstract at the outset, so that you begin writing from bullets knowing the narrative thread that you have carry through the chapter.

Outline planning in sentences  isn’t a strategy that is universal for all writers, all of the time, for all kinds of projects. But it can be very useful for people who haven’t yet worked out how to write in something other than blocks. Outline planning in sentences is a strategy  that you might try if you get feedback (or you see in your own writing) the presence of blocks of content, held together by the intrusive glue of excessive signposting and self conscious connections to your research.

It might even just be interesting to have a go and see whether and how using sentence outlines helps you work out what you really are trying to say, before you write screeds.

(And one final note: Yes, there are exceptions to the ‘red thread’ approach. People who are deliberately writing montage, for example, won’t do this kind of planning – or writing. They use a different kind of planning, planning which focuses on the aesthetics of juxtapositions and counterpoint. And their end result won’t read like blocky writing either.)

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in backward mapping, blocky writing, chapter, outline by sentences, planning, planning a paper and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to writing thesis chapters? beware ‘blocky’ writing

  1. Adam Wood says:

    Thank you – this is really helpful. Looking back over chapters now I realise I’d written what I *wanted* to write and that was tied closely to what I knew and thought and so ‘blocky’ in form. I had ideas but not always an argument through or via them. So this is really helpful as a reminder to self that it’s not about what I want to write but what *needs* to be written and communicated for the argument and for the reader. Great help, thank you!


  2. Lesley says:

    Thanks Pat, working on it!!


  3. Ghayda says:

    I started planning my framework chapter (I call the literature review a framework as I will describe exactly what I did in relation to the literature). However, instead of using points I used questions; what do you mean by ‘concept in my title’, how does this relate to ‘another concept in my title’ etc. Some of these questions are part of my upgrade report feedback, others are my supervisor’s questions for me to answer, that’s how – I think- I can stay focused on my work.
    Anyway, that’s my own thing 🙂
    Pat you are an angel in academia, bless you.


  4. Charmagne Barnes says:

    Enjoyed reading this Pat – most useful. Do keep those blogs coming . May save a soul such as I !!! Charmagne


  5. badblood says:

    Thanks for this post — I came to academia from the community sector where blocky writing was the norm in reports, and it’s always uncomfortable to read. However, I wondered if you have any thoughts on how to avoid it when using tools like Scrivener or Ulysses? They seem designed to facilitate writing in blocks, and when using them I’ve found it a struggle to keep the thread going.


    • pat thomson says:

      Good question. I dont use either of them and your question seems to suggest why I might not! Ill ask around.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Sarina says:

      Hi Badblood, Scrivener is (just) a writing tool- how you use it is up to you!

      I read Pat’s post & thought the opposite- Scrivener is perfect for avoiding writing in blocks.

      I suggest that you can use the headings in Scrivener for your “block content” title- but then use the Synopsis or Notes section to write what your outline plans in full sentences. If you use the Synopsis section- you can can then switch to the Outliner View Mode with Title and Synopsis selected and you’ll be able to see if the sections flow together.

      You can also always compile with just Title with Synopsis or Notes selected and you’ll have a nice printed version to read to see if there is flow. Good Luck!


      • badblood says:

        I gave up using Scrivener because the interface is just painfully over-complicated to use, and it has bugs that have gone unfixed for update after update — like the more or less random selection of styles applied to copy-pasted text, and the fact that applying a new style does not cancel out previously applied formatting. I regret even mentioning it to people, because now I am supporting several older friends who are mid-way through large writing projects they have started in Scrivener. So, please, don’t come and tell me that I just don’t understand how to use the program, and then recommend I follow exactly the kind of writing strategy that leads to blocky writing in the first place.


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  7. Elina McGill says:

    Wow. I’m thankful that I stumbled upon this post before I got into the meat of my thesis. I’m noticing the blockiness of my writing already. With academic writing, students tend to believe the writing must be rigid in order to be credible. The idea of reverse outlining is also a great resource for me.

    I’m currently embarking on the adventure of writing a 65-pages thesis in 30 days. My progress is public and unnerving enough to keep me going. If you are interested in following my progress, here’s the link: https://elinamcgill.wordpress.com/2016/11/02/ultraepic-project-30-days-to-thesis/. I’m looking to gain momentum, and I would appreciate if you could mention the project on your blog or elsewhere.

    Thank you for your advice on crafting compelling arguments!


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