Putting pen to paper (or your fingers to the keyboard) can be intimidating. One of the hardest parts is knowing where to start and, once you’ve cleared that hurdle, it can be difficult to discern just where you’re going. You want your writing to send a clear, cohesive message, so organizing before you write is one of the most crucial steps of the writing process.
Whether you’re starting to type up your annual report, you’re writing a grant request, or you’re penning an email to a colleague, there are some strategies that you can use to make your life easier and your writing better. You’ll find that, if you put in the time and effort before you even start writing, the entire process will flow much more smoothly.
Really, it’s about making yourself feel comfortable with writing. If you can properly plan ahead, you can think about it more like talking then writing. It should come naturally and your own voice will emerge in your words.
Here are some of our favourite tips for organizing your thoughts before you sit down to write.
You’ve undoubtedly spent some time brainstorming before. This is the place where the spark is lit. Abandon your inhibitions. Throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks. At this point, anything goes… you’re not committing to anything. Let your mind flow freely and see what comes out.
Pull out a piece of paper or a Word document on your computer and let loose. Write down anything that comes to your mind. For instance, if you’re writing about a recent study, you could include the controls, the parameters of the study, the standard deviation, and so on. Any topic you might want to discuss in your paper is fair game while you’re brainstorming.
You also want to flesh out ideas that you may or may not include, and try to connect the dots between them. Think of some possible conclusions your study could point to. You can even draw arrows between different bullets if you notice any correlations. This will give you the beginnings of a roadmap for your paper.
Brainstorming is all about figuring out what you want to write about in general. You don’t need to worry about the details at this stage. Rather, you’re figuring out the points you want to cover.
It’s kind of like starting to plan a family vacation. At this point, you’ll say something like, “I want to go somewhere warm, tropical, and affordable.” Thailand? A Caribbean Island? Or perhaps somewhere in Central America? Write it all down. You don’t need to worry about what hotel you’re staying at or what restaurants are nearby. Just start with what you want to do.
If brainstorming feels like you are in a 10th grade English class, try a thought web. This is a great brainstorming tool that works just as well on a whiteboard. It could look something like the one on the right. And you can add to the supporting ideas, actions and resources needed.
Create an Outline
Your high school teacher was right – the difference between writing with and without an outline is huge.
Think of it as a colouring book. Once you’ve got the lines in place, it’s easy to fill them in. Creating an outline is like creating the lines, and then writing becomes an easy task of filling in the blanks.
It’s really a matter of sequencing the points you figured out from your brainstorming session. Ask yourself: In what order should I present this topic? For instance, for this article you’re reading, the basis of my outline looks something like this:
- Create an Outline
Because we’re trying to develop a process for organizing for writing, my outline goes in chronological order. Different topics require different organizational patterns but here’s a question you can ask yourself if you’re stuck at this stage: If I didn’t know anything about this topic, what would I need to know to understand it?
If you are using a thought web, everything is already outlined. You can easily write numbers next to the thought bubbles in the order you will add them to your outline.
After you’ve created your general outline, you now want to start filling in some more details. Create subsections within the sections of your outlines, and in them create different points. To return to our previous example, let’s take the outline for this section.
- Create an Outline
a. General outline
b. Filling in details
c. Specific quotes, stats, etc.
As you can see, we now have a few details for the section and so, once we start writing, we’ll know where to start and where to go.
Of course, as you probably expect by now, we’ve come to the third subsection of the section on creating an outline. We need to talk about including citations.
These details are the nitty-gritty of your writing, especially when it comes to academic or technical writing. And, it turns out, this is also where a lot of people get hung up. You’ve got all this great data you’ve gathered, or perhaps you’ve done some research and compiled a list of awesome quotes about your subject. Where do you put it?
Now’s the part where you get to utilize those details. Insert any quotes, facts, statistics, or other information into the outline at this point. That way, as you write, you know exactly where you want to put them.
Back to the family vacation planning exercise, creating an outline is like a loose agenda. It might include travel dates, locations, and specific points of interest. During the process of researching your vacation, you’ll also gather resources and information you want to keep for reference.
When you get lost, the best thing you can do is pull out a map. Creating an outline gives you a way to map out your thoughts ahead of time so you never feel lost or confused once you start writing. Now, don’t forget to look over your work carefully before you send it off, and you’ll be good to go!