5 March 2018


Overcoming Page Fright: Three Techniques for Planning a Piece of Academic Writing

By Catherine Pope

March 5, 2018

Posted in Writing

As a writer, there’s nothing more intimidating than a blank screen. As we stare into the void, our brain goes into spasm and is unable to retrieve even rudimentary ideas. Anything that does pop into our head feels like utter rubbish. No wonder it’s often easier to faff about on Facebook or talk to the cat.

In this post, I’m going to walk you through three simple planning techniques to make your next piece of writing less daunting. You can use them in sequence, mix and match, or adapt them for your purpose.

1) Think About Your Audience

Unless you’re keeping a secret diary, the main aim here is to get ideas out of your head and into somebody else’s. Often we’re so befuddled by our own thoughts that we forget to think about the reader. What do they actually want or need from us? Drafting responses to the following questions can help structure your content and improve focus.

  • Who is your audience? e.g. expert / peer / examiner / general public
  • What do you want them to know? e.g what’s important or exciting about your research?
  • What do they want to know? e.g are they looking for an introduction, originality, or evidence of impact?
  • What do they already know? e.g. can you omit some of the context and get straight to your argument?
  • What don’t they know? e.g. do you need to explain your terminology or set the scene?

2) Tell Your Story

Now you’ve worked out what you need to include, you can move on to the narrative of your piece. You might think that narratives are for novelists, but us researchers are also telling stories: what we did, why we did it, who was involved, what happened next. Your reader will appreciate a strong storyline to propel them through your article or chapter.

First, consider your starting point. How are you going to pique the reader’s interest? You might quote an alarming statistic, challenge a misconception, or promise a new perspective on an old problem.

Next, decide on your endpoint. Perhaps you want to inspire the reader with an aspirational statistic, issue a call to action, or share a success story. Your number one task here is to leave your reader with a strong grasp of your argument or claim.

Here comes the creative bit …

  • Find a BIG piece of paper and draw a horizontal line across the middle.
  • Write your start and end points on Post-It notes and place them at either end of the line.
  • Use Post-It notes to work out the steps you’ll need to guide your reader from beginning to end. Don’t worry about the sequence just yet – get all the ideas out of your head and onto paper.
  • Review your Post-It notes critically. Which actually belong in the story? Are any merely confusing sub-plots? You probably don’t want more than half a dozen.
  • Spend some time experimenting with different sequences on your storyboard. You can take photos to easily compare variations (or create duplicate storyboards).

3) Create Your Structure

A storyboard might be enough to get you going. If not, let’s try some more detail. My favourite approach is what I call The Rule of Threes. I work out the three main ideas I want to address in my piece, then the three main points within each of those ideas. This gives me a firm outline. I can also work out how I’m going to going to allocate my word count. For a 5,000-word article, you probably don’t have much space left once you’ve allowed for the introduction, methodology, and conclusion.

If that’s still too loose, you can produce a tighter structure by writing a bullet point for each paragraph of your article. This should summarise what each paragraph is doing: explaining a concept, providing evidence, advancing your argument. When you’ve finished, review your bullet point list:

  • Are any of the points very long? If so, you might want to break them down.
  • Are any of them unnecessary?
  • Are they in the right sequence, or jumping around?
  • Are there any gaps?
  • Are there duplicates?

You can then use these bullet points as scaffolding for your writing. It’s much easier to fix the structure of a list than it is to wrestle with a giant Word document.

You might find this approach too prescriptive, especially if your writing is reflective rather than empirical. Sometimes structure is helpful, other times it gets in the way. Experiment to learn what works for you in different contexts. And don’t restrict yourself to a structure that isn’t working – you can always go back to the storyboard.

I hope that’s helpful. Do please share any tips in the comments below. In my next post, I’ll address the tricky business of overcoming procrastination and staying motivated.

Catherine Pope

About the author

Since completing her PhD in 2014, Catherine has supported thousands of researchers through to the finish line. Having enjoyed a varied career as a web developer, lecturer, and coach, Catherine now shares her skills and knowledge through PhD Progress.

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  1. As always Dr Pope, your writing is always informative and to the point. Although not an academic, I find your insights and suggestions of great use for presentations and documents requiring more depth.
    Thank you.

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