Getting ready to write
Good writing is a matter partly of organization, and partly of skill. The organization is both of yourself and your thoughts and ideas (including your critical appraisal of other people's ideas). The skill lies in your ability to craft your words so your meaning is clearly understandable to your reader.
The "skill" comes from considerable practice, and an understanding of the context in which you are writing – business writing, for example, has certain conventions, as does the sort of writing you will be expected to do for higher education. On this page, we shall be looking at the "organization": of yourself, your thoughts and your ideas.
Getting started: clarifying the task
When you are given a piece of academic written work, it can seem like an enormous problem. However as with all problems it is better solved by pausing to reflect for a moment on what it is you are being asked to do.
How you approach a piece of written work will depend on its nature – see structuring written work for an explanation of the various types. Put simply, while a report may examine a particular situation – for example, a country, a particular phenomenon such as Japanese corporate culture, an industry, or perhaps even a problem in your company which you have had to deal with, an essay will generally pose a particular question or problem, for example "How can subliminal advertising be used to increase sales?"; "What are the advantages and disadvantages of affirmative action?"; "What is the main purpose of accounting in business?".
The first step is to make sure that you understand the question or topic. You can do this by:
- rephrasing the question in your own words
- underlining the words which tell you the approach you should take.
Next, brainstorm some (probably fairly random) thoughts onto a piece of paper. Mind maps may be useful here, and such activity will help you determine what you know already and what are the areas and issues that you need to research.
Once you are sure you are clear what is required, you need to start the research process. You will probably use books, journal articles, magazines, websites etc., but don't make life too difficult for yourself by collecting more information than you need.
It's also a good idea at this stage to plan the research process (as opposed to the essay itself). Ask yourself:
- How long is the essay?
- How does this length translate into number of pages?
- How many sections (roughly), how long should the sections be, and how much information do I need for each section?
- How long will I need for the research/drafting/writing?
Once you have a fair amount of information, review it and see what themes, theories, arguments, etc. emerge. This is the point at which you can start to develop a plan for the essay, and decide on its general structure and design. What are the broad themes which will constitute the main topics you will cover? For each of these topics, what are the main points you need to cover? It's a good idea to find some way of organizing your notes according to theme, perhaps by putting them into different piles or by colour coding them.
You can write your plan out in list form under a series of headings, alternatively you might find a visual technique useful, such as mind maps or pyramids. With the latter, information is organized in a hierarchical fashion, with the most general categories at the top, followed by aspects of those categories, then examples, as in the diagram below.
It can be a useful technique for comparing different theoretical perspectives. Your highest level is the main schools of thought, followed by the main theorists and their theories, then for each theory supporting evidence etc., followed by some examples.
The approach you take will be dictated by the topic, for example a report on the shoe industry in Buenos Aires will probably be largely descriptive; however, an essay looking at the pros and cons of subliminal advertising may need to be more analytical. Here is a brief summary of some of the more common approaches:
- Descriptive – for example, when describing a particular piece of research that you did, or the main points of a particular theory.
- Analytical/argumentative – many essays require you to argue a point of view and develop ideas and opinions in an informed and substantiated manner. Here, you will need to state a point of view, offer evidence (together with the source) to support it, state what the opposing views are, and finally, why your views are best.
- Evaluative – you critically analyse and evaluate a particular theory, view or hypothesis. This involves comparisons – finding points of similarity, including minor differences, and contrasts – looking at major points of difference. You also need to evaluate the significance of these contrasts, showing how you arrived at your conclusions.
- Using personal experiences – if you are studying management, particularly at MBA level, you will be required to equate your own personal experience against management theory. You need to lift your own experience out from the purely anecdotal, and provide a concise description. In particular, how does your own experience relate to theory? How does it illuminate what you have learnt?
The various topics should obviously be sandwiched between your introduction, which should explain how you understand the question, and what you are going to cover in the essay, and the conclusion, which should summarize your argument and state your main conclusions.
There comes the point where you have to put pen to paper, or finger to mouse, and start to actually write the essay or report. The writing process will be much easier if you have followed the steps above, but even so writing can be daunting and writers' block can quickly set in. One way of dealing with this is by recognizing that you will need to go through a series of drafts, and that writing is an iterative process of organization, drafting, refinement, redrafting and further refinement.
How many drafts you need will probably vary according to how experienced you are at writing in an academic environment, how confident you are with your writing style etc., and you will probably find that you require fewer drafts the more pieces of written work you do. In the meantime, however, you may find the following draft plan (Cottrell, 1999) may be helpful:
First draft: very much based on the plan, put in the main headings and subheadings. These may not be the same as in your final essay but should reflect the main themes that have emerged from your research. Under each heading, put in details of the main points.
Second draft: fine-tune the first draft into proper paragraphs, checking the connecting sentences between the paragraphs.
Third draft: read your draft, and fine-tune the style so it reads well.
Fourth draft: this is the stage where you should do a final check that your language is correct, i.e. that there are no grammar or spelling errors, also that your references are accurate.
People vary as to whether or not they prefer to use the computer or pen and paper for drafts – experiment with whatever is best for you. The former is easier to edit whereas the latter gives a feeling of informality.
Another important point is that you do not need to write in chronological sequence. You can write some parts before others, also when you are at the stage of gathering information and developing your ideas, you may find a particular way of expressing that comes into your head. If it does so, don't be afraid to write it down.
Cottrell, S. (1999), The Study Skills Handbook, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK.