Friday, 5 January 2018

Planning what to write

I have been undertaking part of a series of FutureLearn papers on technical writing (view the course here) from the University of Reading. As part of this second unit, those of us on the course have been exploring our ideas and finding out each other's opinions on the discussion boards.

We were asked a question about which of the following we agreed with, and why. Whether we felt that: 
  • I like to write a detailed plan for my essay before I start writing. I stick fairly close[ly] to the plan
  • I write a rough plan and then start writing. As I write, I find my ideas evolve, so my first draft might end up looking quite different to what I had planned. 
  • I don't write a plan for essays. I just start writing and see where the writing leads me.
My response was that I did a mixture of 'just starting to write', followed by 'writing a plan'.

One of my fellow students was quite surprised by my response - perhaps thinking of me as being controlled and planned from my other answers, I suspect. He asked me about how I 'fixed my writing plan' which really made me pause to think.

My response to the question surprised me. I hadn't realised that there was some hidden knowledge for me to find in my writing process. Upon reflection, I realised that I don't start with a concrete plan at all. In fact, I start with an almost blank canvas. As I first explore the literature, I read and take notes in a way that begins my writing. The information from this initial phase may not end in my final work. My initial trawling and researching is combined with writing, and the process is iterative.

As a result, each time I set out to write, I do almost two literature reviews. The second one begins as the first is taking shape, and the second builds upon the first. The first trawl of the literature starts to build a picture of what I need to find out, then, as I am discovering the field, I also start to understand enough to start planning out how and what I should write. I often draw up a concept map in this overlapping phase so I can lead myself through the landscape - eg here - which helps me to map out the relationships and develop my main argument.

As a usually fairly planned person, my fellow student's question really made me reflect deeply about why and how I approach this differently. I have learned something new about myself, and I was surprised at how organic my writing process is. The 'yet to be discovered' thing is WHY I write this way, and what the benefits and costs may be to me in taking this approach.

Writing is a skill that needs honing. I am sure that there are as many methods as there are writers... but, like any craft, we can learn different techniques to increase our mastery. I probably need to try other writing approaches to see if I can write more efficiently and effectively. I may be like the person carrying four bricks at a time by hand, compared to using a hod and carrying a dozen... or - even worse - my four bricks by hand might have its mirror with the man on a forklift, carrying 440 on a single pallet. This will need more exploration: I do want to ensure that I see full benefit for my creative endeavours.

Mind you, regardless of how we get there, providing our end point meets our goals, I think we have succeeded :-)


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