I’m often asked about my writing process, i.e., how I go about writing. One the things I always tell students is that to get better at writing you have to understand your process. The same is true for academic writers (any writers really). Understanding how you work allows you then to be able to become more fluent in producing texts.
So my process will be different from yours, but here are some strategies that may be useful for you to try to work through what process may work better for you. What I describe is the general process I go through when writing any academic piece and it’s contingent on the fact that I already know what my research question is or the primary purpose of the writing. In other words, what I describe below presupposes a starting point. Now we just have to get words on the page.
Steps 1-3: Outlining, writing, citations
These work in tandem sometimes and sometimes they in a step process. But steps one through three are outlining to capture the major points I want to cover; words on the page, which is usually accomplished through sessions of simply writing everything I know about that section (of the outline); and inserting relevant citations.
Outlining is an old school sort of task, but I’ve found through the years that when I have a stronger outline—accomplished by actually thinking in terms of the big sections I need to include and to cover—I am much more successful at having a solid working draft than when I cut this step short or try to bypass it.
Once I have an outline, I move to filling those sections by writing everything I know about the topic. By using the outline as the guide, it makes it easier to write when I only have smaller windows of time. So if I have half an hour, I can usually get a big part of one section written (or even whole section sometimes). This method also means that it’s easier for me to pick up writing when I’ve been away from the piece for a few days. A quick san of the outline and the words I’ve already written will get me up to speed pretty quickly.
Inserting citations, which includes quotes, can take a couple of different forms. Sometimes I put key quotes or works in the outline as a heading or specific section, especially if it’s a work that I know I have to engage with (that is write about in a meaningful way). Sometimes I’ll have a quote marked in a file or a book that I insert when I’m doing the writing that will help generate the text for a section and sometimes I only go back to insert quotes and citations after I have a big chunk of text written. In the latter example, I mat insert a reminder to myself when I’m writing. Something like, “be certain to quote or reference X scholar.” This enables me bot to lose momentum or get in caught in unnecessary reading that may get me away from my own writing and ideas.
Step 4: Evidence Check
I move through steps 1-3 until I have something that resembles a working draft. At that point, I do my usual step four, which is to make sure that I have evidence for all of my points. This is an isolated writing and editing step because for me and how approach scholarship I want to make sure that I have amply supported all of the major points. This is also where I start to tweak the citations and references (because, again, I’m a vocal supporter of making sure we build on previous scholarship).
Step 5: transitions
I hate them and what makes them so hard for me is that as a practicing technical writer for so many years, we often didn’t need transitions. We simply inserted another heading. That doesn’t really work all the time in academic writing so transitions are what I refer to as the text that helps the reader see the connections you are making between points and references and examples. As someone who loves math, I like to use the analogy that transitions is like showing your work. It’s the verbal equivalent of helping the reader see how you made the connections you did instead of thinking that they will automatically know it.
Step 6: Editing paragraphs
This is the process of going through at the paragraph level and making sure that each paragraph has a point and that they have forward movement. These are two key facets of academic writing that are often lost, but I’ve found for me that paying attention to these things specifically enables me to tighten up my arguments and my writing.
Step 7: editing sentences
This is the step of going through and eliminating wordiness and ensuring that the sentences are doing the work they need to do. This one is straight forward in that it’s just the time where you’re choosing good words, active verbs, and not burying your points in phrases. This is for me is a pretty big part of the process because my first draft prose is bloaty and phrase and adverb filled. So I know that about myself and recognize that I have to have a specific step that deals with these issues.
Step 8: Final editing
Here is where I read everything again and also have someone else read it. I also do all that tedious work of reference lists and making sure the in-text list and references match and ensure I’m using the write citation style for the journal I plan on submitting too.
So that’s my process in a nutshell. I do have to say that the whole thing is contingent on my “butt in chair” philosophy which states that writing can never get done until you put your butt in the chair to do it J