Planning and writing

When it comes to writing I’m definitely a planner. I like to show other people how to plan their papers too. 

And the standard caveat before I begin. Of course my way is not the only way. This is A way that works for quite a lot of people most of the time. Or some of the time. It is one strategy to add into your bag of writing tools.

When I am writing for publication I take what is really a project management approach, where I map out the various steps in the writing and diary them. My planning is not about writing every day, although I do do some writing most days. I’m lucky. But like most people the times I have available vary. Sometimes a lot. Sometimes a little. I have to fit writing in with my non negotiables. Even if I prioritise writing, which I do, there is still other stuff to get done.

This is how I plan. I use a Tiny Text which I then expand out to include key “stuff” – chunks of pre-writing, quotations and references, and any relevant bits of data analysis. That leaves me with a pretty coherent outline which already has its argument sorted. However, like planning anything, my initial writing plan may not be the same as the final final piece. That’s OK, because in the actual writing I learn more about what I can say.

My plan always has an approximate word count against each section. And a potential time allocation. I match the word count to the amount of time I think I need for each section – how long I think it will take me to write this number of words, given the complexity of the section. Some sections, like methods, are often quick because I know what I am going to write very well. Other sections like the conclusion might be quite short but take a fair bit of time, even for a first draft. Once I’ve got my word and times estimated and allocated, I can then match my estimated times to the slots I have available in my diary.

Below you can see a planning sequence where I go from a Tiny Text to dividing the paper into sections to allocating a notional word budget. I’ve shown this set of slides before but now I have added time allocations to them.

This gets you to a first draft. You then need to allocate additional time for revising and refining. But this is what I try to show people they can do too, if they choose. Our times would of course vary as our lives and work are different.

And there’s the catch. I am sure that you can already see it. Sometimes my time estimates are wrong. Sometimes a section just takes a lot longer than I think. Sometimes it is quicker too. And sometimes I find when I am some way into my plan that the overall argument is wonky and I really need to go back to the beginning and start over. I didn’t know that at the start.

Now, I am of course pretty long in the tooth and have done a lot of writing. (It’s not my habit to talk about the number of people I’ve worked with and the number of things I’ve written but you can check out my books and other publications if you need evidence that I’ve done my share of academic writing.) The most important thing about this volume and planning is not the quantity, but it’s that I have done enough to have a fair idea of how long things usually take me. I know how many words I can write on a good day and how long it usually takes me to write the more complex sections of a paper.

I have experience I can use in planning. But I still don’t always get it right. But. Yes, but. If you’re a relatively new academic writer then you don’t have experience. Yet. But you will have. Each time you write, you build up understandings about your own writing, how you work with various bits of text, what you struggle with, what often takes longer to get right. And you develop an idea of how long you might take for different aspects of writing.

But understanding isn’t easy – knowing how long it takes you to write a thing is not only tied to what you are writing, but also when, where and how. Writing is never a simple matter of it usually takes an hour for me to write an introduction of 300 words. We are always working with a range an I’ve taken from half an hour to three entire sessions of two hours each to write my introduction.

Understanding the range of the time it might take you to write a section means you can be more realistic about how much time to allow – not the shortest – and more forgiving of yourself if it turns out that this time you are at the longest time and you were optimistic about the time you had initially allocated.

But there’s a further implication here. Being able to allocate time slots to particular parts of a writing task relies on you building up writing understanding based on experience. Each time you write you potentially know more about your own writing practices.

So if you are just starting out on your academic writing career, not coming to the end of it as I am, then it can really help if you start to systematically build up your knowledge about your own writing processes. And this means in part some kind of time-tracking of your writing, and then some periodic reflection on it.

Working out your own range of writing specifics means keeping some kind of log. You don’t have to do this all the time and every time you write. And tracking your time, and associated writing tasks, can be as elaborate or as simple as you like.

There is probably some smart tech that is available to help you track your writing times – if people know of this, do write it in the comments below so we can all learn. If you are a daily or weekly planner person you could keep a running total and log in your journal (whatever it is called or formatted). Or you could simply set up an Excel spread sheet or Word table to help you keep track of the range of times you spend on different writing tasks.

And yes there will be unexpected glitches, institutional and funding issues to deal with – and life – as well as the fact that you aren’t a robot and what you do changes depending on how well or badly things are going for you, the weather, other deadlines etc etc. Plans are based on experience but they aren’t written in stone and they can be changed.

But Writer, know thyself is a pretty good maxim to use as a guide to building up the picture of your own writing habits. And using that experience to make your writing plan.

A final caveat. The example I’ve given is for a pretty standard social science journal article. if you are writing something different you will need to adjust your Tiny Text and sections to fit what you are writing.

I haven’t quite finished with planning yet and there is more on planning and writing next week.

LATE ADDITION I ve been told that is a painless time tracking tool.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in planning, planning a paper, planning fallacy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Planning and writing

  1. Peter says:

    I am at the start of writing the first article for my PhD which is a dissertation by publication. Your current and previous posts helped me a lot to reevaluate my approach to the planning of writing. Thank you.


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