As a non-fiction writer, I’ve taught myself never to start writing until I have a comprehensive plan in place. This approach is partly dictated by the publishing industry — a commissioning editor has to approve my plan before giving me the go-ahead to write the book. But I’ve also found it saves enormously on time and effort.

Over the course of delivering more than 100 books, I’ve developed a method that works well for me. I start big and then fill in the detail, stage by stage.

After some initial research, my first step is to draft the chapter headings for a book. Then I test my basic framework for strength. Does the order work logically and are there any gaps? Do some chapters cover too little or too much? When I’m happy with the structure, I move on.

The second stage is to decide the main headings within each chapter. Once again, I test how well they flow before moving on. Finally, I write the subheadings.

As the framework fills out, I make adjustments; some chapters may need to be divided into two, or I may need to rethink the overall structure. While I’m planning, I do more research to fill any gaps in my structure.

Building a sturdy framework takes time and effort, but it’s the most important part of the writing process. Once I’ve come up with a plan that I’m happy with, for me, the hardest task is over. To stretch the building metaphor a little further, filling in the words feels like pouring concrete into a mould.

I’ve also used this approach in writing workshops to help others get to grips with structuring their text. How can my planning method be applied to undergraduate essays, doctoral theses and academic papers? As in my work, it’s a step-by-step process:

1. Create the main framework: the section headings of an essay or report, or the chapter headings of a dissertation.
2. Fill in the next level: the point for each paragraph in an essay or headings within dissertation chapters.
3. Add more levels if needed: subheadings within chapters of a dissertation, then the point for each paragraph.

Keep your plan simple and always hold your overall structure in mind. Once you have a clear framework for your ideas, much of the stress can be taken out of writing, and you may even find yourself enjoying the process.

9 May 2019