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To plan or not to plan?

Image credit: Liz Allen
Image credit: Liz Allen

A few months ago I gave the last of a series of nine workshops on dissertation writing. This final session was for taught MA students at Sussex University but I’ve also run sessions for third years at both Brighton and Sussex universities. Dissertations seem to have become my speciality as an RLF Consultant Fellow!

In response to student feedback, I usually include a section on planning and structure. Students always seem to find this valuable, whether we focus on the macro-task of planning a dissertation or the micro-structure of paragraphs. I begin by taking a straw poll. How many of you make a detailed plan/several plans before writing? How many make no plan? There are always a surprising number who claim to create no structure at all. At some point in the ensuing discussion I ‘come out’ as a meticulous planner. I may describe my method of writing, which involves distinct thinking, reviewing and planning stages.

As a non-fiction writer I work with facts. I may present a range of views on the topic, but it’s vital to develop my own position and present the information in my own voice. I point out that these are exactly the same skills that are needed for dissertation writing. My own method is to do my research for the following day’s writing the afternoon before. As I complete it, I have a little think, and make a ‘thumbnail’ plan in the margin of my notes. This mini-structure sets out the points I will make and the order in which I will make them. I assign a word count to each point. The following morning, I compose my text.

As a careful planner I adhere to what I call the ‘constipated school’ of writing. I write quite slowly (1,500 words a day maximum) but the text flows well and is pretty much the final draft, bar a few corrections. At the other end of the spectrum is what I call the ‘splurge school’. Some students and fellow writers begin drafting as they research, and then have an extensive reshaping stage. As we discuss the pros and cons of various approaches, I stress there’s no right or wrong way to write, though I do advise developing a tight structure for a piece as long as a dissertation. Am I influenced by the counter-argument for ‘splurge writing’? Almost never, with one exception — this blog. Perhaps I’ll give it a go more often!

14 September 2016

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