five focusing questions to kick off some writing

So you’re about to write a paper. Or a chapter. You’ve gathered together all of the stuff you think you need – analysed data, a short list of references to cite, some early jottings. Now you begin to think about doing some free writing to get into the swing of it. Or perhaps you might get straight to an outline or a Tiny Text

Hang on a bit. Before you put the timer on, or start writing about context (the first move in an outline or Tiny Text) it might be quite helpful to consider a bit more structured writing-thinking work. It often helps to focus on what you want to say, why, how and to whom, right at the outset. So to that end, here are some relevant questions to ask yourself. I’ve adapted these from David Labaree, and added to them.

These five sets of questions could form the basis of five timed writing sessions (pomodoros of, say, no more than 20 minutes each, and I’d probably opt for even shorter). Or they could be the subject of some more jottings before you get to that outline or Tiny Text. Just ask yourself –

  1. What’s the point you want to make? What’s your angle? Labaree calls this the analysis/interpretation issue you need to get sorted out in order to write a coherent draft. So you know what you are aiming at. So you know how your argument ends. It’s what I often call your take home message.
  • Who is your reader? Who would be interested in this? Why? What do they already know about the topic? What would they expect you to mention or discuss in some detail? Is there anything about your topic that you need to be clear about , something you need to explain so your reader knows where you stand – definitions, debates in the field?
  • Can you say this, and on what basis? Labaree calls this the validity issue  because it refers to your use of “evidence” – that is literatures, possibly also theory and probably analysed data. In other words, you need to be able to make your point by providing persuasive and trustworthy “stuff”.
  • What’s new? Labaree calls this the value-added issue. I’d call it the contribution, but I’m sure there are all kinds of terms which could be used here. Basically it means – What does your paper contribute that is new and/or offers a different perspective and/or adds to a discussion or controversy that is in your field? Perhaps it is confirmative and that is important. Perhaps it raises questions that need to be taken seriously. Whatever it is, identify it.
  • Who cares? Labaree calls this the significance issue. He says that this is the most important question to consider because it’s about whether the work is worth writing about and worth someone reading. So the question to ask yourself is whether the work contributes something important – and spelling out what that is. So you also probably anticipate some follow on, either in the form of further research, changes in policy or practice. Now that we know this, what might happen? 

It can also help to take your answers to these questions and try them out on someone else. Talk them through. Make them into a sales pitch for your paper. Talking aloud about your answers to these five questions will also help you to see where there might be red herrings, false starts, missing pieces and/or dodgy claims. Or how well it hangs together 🙂

The caveat: As always, this is a suggested strategy to add to your writing repertoire. It’s not a one best solution. (Beware the one best, you know the I know the trick to writing a perfect paper, I can make it simple.) This strategy may not work for you, or work for the kind of writing you are doing. It isn’t a skeleton for a paper and could equally apply to a standard IMRaD format as a much more creative piece. There is always the subsequent question of how the answers to these points translate into a written genre!

But the five questions are really worth a serious try.

Photo by Luke Chesser on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in beginning writing, contribution, pomodoro, the point, Tiny Text and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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