From table of contents to a finished text

Introduction

Writer’s block is a term for a feeling where a writer feels being stuck: unable to get anything written down or any progress made in the writing process. It is a frustrating feeling, and very hard to overcome. There are probably many reasons for the writer’s block. In this blog post I address one of them: the lack of process that would divide writing into meaningful, manageably sized steps.

I offer the following advice based on my personal experience. I have noticed that the steps described in this blog post work for me, and I am also able to explain why that is the case.

While some others may offer different guidance, since there can be many other ways to write and avoid writer’s block too, I am not alone with my ideas. Simon Peyton Jones from Microsoft Research Cambridge (https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/academic-program/write-great-research-paper/) illustrates the recommended process like this:

The diagram suggests that research should not be done before the paper has been written. But what if you already have the data and you need to write now? Is there anything useful in this blog post if the requirement is to write before doing the research (i.e., gathering data)? No worries: while Simon Peyton Jones seems to suggest that kind of a process, this blog post helps also in situations where the data already exists. You can find tips from Step 4 onwards below.

The research process (with emphasis on writing)

If I have to simplify, writing of an academic text (e.g., thesis, essay or a publication) is a process consisting of the following stages.

1. Exploration that finds a purpose for the study

This step can be a bit messy, but it has a clear goal: to identify possible contributions (i.e., findings) that my new study might make. This step can be very slow (even years) if there is no deadline, or it may be rushed, if my research has to be ready on a given date and I’m still even lacking all the data. In addition to thinking about possible contributions, this step also involves generation of possible research question(s) (RQs) and searching for background literature that can answer to them. It also includes the identification of research methods that would be suitable for that RQ. I need to adapt the contributions, RQs and methods until they are in alignment and seem to point towards a study that could produce some interesting as a result. This part’s outcomes often look like a collection of diagrams, lists, ideas, questions, etc., – that is, the outcomes do not look like a text at all yet.

I will not focus on Step 1 in this blog text. However, the linked posts above offer recommendations for dealing with this messy and open-ended early stage where the purpose gestates and gives the direction for the later steps.

2. Research plan

Now we get to the first step that resembles writing. In the previous step, I have managed to identify a promising contribution and RQs, as well as the methods that I can use to answer the RQs. I can therefore write a research plan for myself based on the outcomes from the Exploration step. This plan will be the outcome from this step. It has resemblance to the text that Simon Peyton Jones may mean in his “Write paper” step. This plan will have the sam contents as the beginnings of an IMRAD-style academic text has: an Introduction, a Related research section, and presentation of Methods.

In writing this text, I work in the same way as I describe below in Step 4 (Bullet point narrative).

At this point, the text may not be intended for anyone else’s eyes (unless I work as a part of a team). The plan can therefore quite sketchily written. The clarity of ideas is more important than how these ideas are expressed in words.

3. The empirical study

Now I gather the data that I have planned in the research plan. Especially in a qualitative study, this may overlap with the next steps in the process. I may adapt the focus of data collection if I notice needs for particular kinds of data.

4. A bullet point narrative

This step is the culmination point of the writing process. When I reach this point, I have at least some data that I have gathered, and it is time to analyse it and write about the findings.

If I have had a good plan and I have been able to follow it, I should now have data that I can use to answer the RQs, and reach the intended contribution. Usually the data does not have a perfect match with the intended outcomes, so I have to adapt my path, and find a slightly different contribution and RQs for which the data suits better. Maybe I have to change the type of contribution that my research is able to make, for example. Let’s assume that I manage to deal with this problem, and I identify the final, suitable contribution and the RQs.

A lot of uncertainty still exists even if I may have an idea about a finding that I could write about. For example, it is difficult to choose which order I should explain the things. I might wonder how much I should write about some background before I can tell a finding. Would that  sidetrack the text too much from the main plot that I want to tell? What if two things seem to require each other as their background? Which one should I write first?

Because of the puzzles like the ones above, it is important to minimize the time that I may  waste in writing long pieces of text that I may need to delete later. Therefore, the entire narrative of the text – from its very beginning to as far into to end – is better to write using bullet points.

Here is a mini-process of how this is done:

Preparations

If my research contribution has not significantly changed from the Research plan that I produced in Step 3, I can use that as my starting point for the paper. I can then extend that by adding the remaining section headings: Results/Findings and Discussion.

However, more commonly, the case is that my idea of the research contribution has changed because of the data that I collected and what my analysis found out. Then I will start from a new, empty document. I fill it with the main IMRAD section headings: Abstract, Introduction, Related research, Method, Results (or Findings) and Discussion.

Next, I fill the contents of each section with the names of the narrative elements (i.e., opening sentence, problematization, motivation, RQs, …) that most of the applied research follows. If I would not already remember these narrative elements, I could copy its contents from the table in my earlier blog post.

These preparations provide the main “skeleton” for the contents that I will need in different sections. This will help me find the appropriate place for different pieces of text that the text needs.

Writing using full-sentence bullets

After this preparation, I start the most significant part of the writing process. While until now I have been writing in first person, in this part I will switch to an imperative “you” style.

The idea is to work in a way that lets you make changes easily, and lets you focus on the content and logic. Therefore, the bullet points work excellently here. There are some rules that need to be followed, so that I don’t fool myself into thinking that I’m making progress while I’m not. Luckily the rules are quite simple:

Rule 1. Use only full-sentence bullets. These can be directives to yourself (“Explain here why interviewing would this time be the wrong method”) or claims (“Interaction design process involves a lot of trial and error.”). Aim for such a clarity that by reading the bullets, a knowledgeable outsider would be able to describe the logic of your paper.

This is why simple keywords (e.g., “participants”, “content analysis”, “limitations”) would not work: they would be only placeholders for content without the content itself. Writing sentences that express claims has the benefit that you are actually doing the mental effort of planning your logic, and working towards results. Keywords, instead, easily turn out to be to-do lists where actual thinking is postponed to some later time. Writing full sentences is harder, of course, but it is cost-efficient to do the thinking now than at a later time.

Rule 2. Do not leave logical gaps in the narrative. Try to find a solution to every open step: to the narrowing and scoping of your focus, to the selection of fields of literature that you are building on, to the selection of methods, and so on. These choices are things that your final text will need to explain, and now is the right moment to ensure that. Finding a way to justify all the decisions is easiest to do first using bullet points. In particular, pay attention to clear the openings and closings of each section and sub-section.

Rule 3. You can speculate about future results. It is clear that you don’t know everything about every part yet when you write these bullets. But that is not a problem: you can define goals for your analysis, for example, and writing down what you expect to find out or which you would like to write about. You can later see if your analysis lets you do that. You can also “foreshadow” these contents in earlier parts of the text, which makes the narrative stronger.

Therefore, write also speculative sentences. If you still lack information – for example, if you don’t have all the data for Results, or your Results are unfinished and you don’t know yet how to start your Discussion – sketch bullets nonetheless for these sections. These bullets are educated optimistic guesses on what you will tell about your research if things go well in your data collection and analysis. Here my work process and Simon Peyton Jones’s recommendations are again similar.

Rule 4. The narrative does not need to be perfect immediately. Don’t fall in despair! Writing bullets in this way is hard at times. This is because it is often hard to know how one idea should be followed with another one. You can soothe yourself, however, by thinking that these decisions are easiest to make using bullets. They are the least demanding way to find the best narrative for your text. It is easy to reorder them, delete them, and write new ones. The narrative does not need to be perfect – it is sufficient that you find one kind of narrative. Then you already have one plan for how to later write the full text. You can decide to improve the narrative later if you keep it in bullet point format.

When is this stage complete? The main goal in this stage is to generate a full overarching understanding about your entire written document. The resulting narrative should not have contradictions (e.g., starting with one research question but ending with a result that does not answer to it, but answers to something else).

Continue “massaging” your text’s bullet point outline until it meets the requirement above. Adapt the level of detail based on the clarity of your thinking: If you are confident that a certain sub-section will be easy to write, then bullets do not need to go into a detailed level. In contrast, if you are unsure about the narrative of a certain sub-section, use second-level and third-level indented bullets and clarify to yourself how that section can be written.

When this stage is finished, you have a narrative that only waits to be transformed into actual paragraphs. The most important work for the text has been completed!

Example

Below is an authentic example of bullet-style writing from a draft that we eventually developed into a paper that we presented in CHI 2017 conference. You are seeing our plan for a sub-section in the background section from an early stage of the writing process.

Tip

If you use Microsoft Word, make yourself familiar with Ctrl-Shift-arrows (Mac) or Alt-Shift-arrows (Windows) keyboard shortcuts. With up and down arrows, you can reorder entire paragraphs easily. With left and right arrows, in turn, you can quickly change the level of indentation in your bullet points.

5. From bullets to full text

After finishing the bullet point plan, the hard part of writing the paper is over. This is because the bullet point version already outlines for me how to tell the narrative, present the evidence and the findings, and other important matters in the text.

I can now take any bullet point and turn it into approximately one paragraph of final-looking text. I can work on any part I wish because I know what has been said before and what will be said later. Therefore, depending on the mood and inspiration, I can work on different parts of the text on different days, whichever seems best.

The first final-looking paragraphs of text do not need to be perfect. I usually do not mind about detailed terminology on this stage yet, for example. I focus on writing down the text so that it preserves the idea in the bullet point, even if the expressions are clumsy and have repetition.

6. Polishing

Once I have written the first draft of the final-looking text, I can focus on improving its language. I straighten the terminological confusions by replacing terms so that I always use the same term in the text. I also focus on writing better sentences that flow nicely. This step usually requires several rounds, but they are fairly stress-free.

Then the text is ready.

Conclusions

The process described in this blog post – especially the recommendation to use bullet points wisely as a vehicle for thinking – are a way to advance in small steps towards a finished article. Although it is not guaranteed, the writer’s block may be better kept away, since there is never a moment when you would need to attempt writing finished-looking from scratch.

Bullet-point style writing has an additional benefit for situations that are common in academic writing: which is collaborative authoring. In many areas or research, academic publications are often written in a team. The writing process is possible to orchestrate using the same bullet point style as individual authoring: one author may take the responsibility for thinking through the paper’s entire storyline, and write bullet points for it. Then different parts can be assigned for different people, and the team members can write their sections independently, with an awareness of how their texts will relate to the whole. This is worth of its own blog post at a later time, but I wanted to mention it here as an opportunity.

Acknowledgments

I want to thank Heidi Paavilainen for informing me about Simon Peyton Jones’s text.

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