academic writing – from a bunch of stuff to text outline

Someone asked me the other day how I did my own writing. I get asked this a lot and I don’t often answer – I don’t want you to think that you have to work like me. No. Every academic writer needs to develop their own strategies that work for them. Writing is about making choices. But anyway, I was asked and this time I decided that describing what I do might be another way to talk about choices. So here’s the answer.

You might be surprised to know that while I do work out my ideas through and in writing, I’m not a big personal fan of pomodoros. I don’t really enjoy a good free write. Don’t get me wrong, I know that a lot of people love them and the timed free write is something that really works for them. I’m not against them. And I often suggest them as something to try and I use them sometimes in workshops. As something people should have a go at. Over the years I’ve used timed free writing. But less and less often. By and large I now don’t. And so you will often hear me say that pomodoros are a good writing strategy – but not the only one going. 

I’m generally more of an organiser. A planner. I approach working out what I think and what I’m going to write by gathering a load of stuff together and then developing the material via an organisational tool – or serial tools.

The organiser I use most of all is the table. I love a good table. I really really love a good table. Tables are a very economical way of dealing with a lot of material in a little space. You do of course have to create some way of imposing order on a table otherwise you don’t know how many columns to make. So you have to work on the initial criteria you use. I usually get initial categories from my research question or problem.

There’s always some thinking work to do to design the table. Table tinkering. Table tailoring.

Here’s a table of literatures that I’m working on. I am writing a first draft of a literatures chapter about resistance. You can see my table categories here – they are pretty basic – they are simply alphabetised bibliographic detail (this matches my Endnote), then what is often a cut and paste of bits of the abstract  together with some comment from me – and a third column which categorises the kind of contribution each paper will make to the overall discussion. My third column include purpose (why resist), theory (how resistance has been explained) and definition (what is resistance).

I am about to start reorganising this table around the third column – purpose, theory, definition etc. I ‘ll use the third column to make several new tables, each one about a specific category.  Once you have an initial table and its columns and rows filled up, you can then further sort around key ideas, words or numbers.

But that won’t be where I stop. The table sort has to be further analysed if it is to become the basis of an outline of some description. You could do some free writing here of course. But I draw out the key themes and/or points from my table and then subject them to another form of organisation. 

When I’m doing a literature review, as is the case here, I always use tables to note and sort the texts, and then reach for an organiser to sort out key relationships. 

At this point I generally choose between one of five different graphic forms. And I may use more than one of them – 

  • A web which develops a central idea, its characteristics, and supporting information and evidence. 
  • A tree which develops classifications and shows hierarchies of ideas within categories. This is what I will be doing with the resistance work. I’ll use my initial sort of the table into categories and get the stuff out of table form and into bullet points. (Tree diagrammes are used in software packages such as NVivo, and indeed this sorting process could be done using some software support).
  • A flow diagram which shows  a sequence of events and the various actors/elements and their relationships with each other
  • A daisy which shows what various bodies of work contribute to a central idea
  • Occasionally I use a Venn diagramme if I am working with a small number of elements that overlap. This is helpful I if I want to compare and contrast and show relationships. 
tree diagramme

And yes. Once I have my material graphically organised I could do some pomodoros using the sorted materials as starting points. But I won’t. You could and that would be fine and fab if this works for you. But I‘ll write a structured abstract as a way to develop the road map for the writing to come. I could use a storyboard which shows sequences of events but also allows for the development of an argument thread/narrative arc or I could use a powerpoint. But I’ll use a tiny text. 

And I’ll show you in the next post how the tiny text becomes the road map for the writing.

And please please remember Im not saying this is how to do it. I’m not saying you all have to table then retable then graphic then outline. I’m not arguing the Thomson method is the best or only way. I’m just saying this is one way to get writing, and it may or may not be how you want to work. 

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in graphic organisier, literature reviews, organisation for writing, Tiny Text and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to academic writing – from a bunch of stuff to text outline

  1. Silvia says:

    Thank you for sharing these insightful ideas! I consider that a good writing strategy is essential when dealing with academic (also fictional) writing to achieve the main goals. I’ve got fantastic ideas from your article to improve my notes and organizing info. Thank you!


  2. Zoe says:

    Thanks for this! So much of the advice on writing is around pomodoro style and this is just not how I work. I love a table also, and this has given me some good ideas how to further develop from the initial table point so thank you


  3. Colin Mills says:

    REALLY helpful; warm good wiehs, Pat


  4. sylviahammond4gmailcom says:

    Once again – clearing the foggy mists of ideas, and papers, and notes, and documents – how to create ordered thinking and writing – totally magic


  5. dbgnvan says:

    This is really helpful. I have stumbled into something similar but not as well organized. I’m going to use this approach on a current project. Concept Maps is a tool I have used to organize my thoughts for papers and presentations (Cmaps). It’s “donationware.”


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