So, you have a writing task to complete. You have diligently applied your favorite idea-generating strategies: brainstorming, freewriting, looping, and idea mapping. If your writing task is in a professional context, you may also have notes from meetings with your boss, clients, or colleagues. If you’re writing in an academic context, you will likely have an assignment from your teacher or professor. A lot of writers tend to skip from the idea-gathering phase to an outlining process. Other writers tend to follow idea gathering with a rough plan – a quick list, perhaps – and then proceed directly to drafting (If this describes you, you may enjoy my planning ideas for the anti-outliners: Don’t Outline — Strategize!)
But dashing from the invention phase to the planning phase without a period of reflection may not be the best course of action. You have an important set of decisions to make between the invention and planning phases. Of course, I am not advocating a sustained period of naval gazing. I stand by my earlier assertion that writers write. But in order to write well, and in order to establish habits that will help you to write better, it’s useful to remember the value of reflection. Reflection makes it easier to write mindfully, and writing mindfully is writing productively. What kinds of decisions need to be made between invention and planning? Invention gives you a wealth of raw material, only some of which will be useful. Correspondingly, you must sort through your points and decide what you want to pursue as you move into planning and drafting. Frequently, you must also refine your topic. It’s also a good idea to review your audience’s expectations by perusing your notes from client meetings or by rereading the professor’s assignment sheet. So, let’s get to it. Here are some questions to help you prepare your raw material for efficient planning and drafting: 1. What is your purpose for writing?
- Are you writing to inform?
- What are you trying to inform the audience about?
- Do you have all of the information and research that you will need to fulfill your informative purpose?
- If you don’t have all of the information, jot down some quick notes in answer to the following: What kinds of data will you need? Where will you look for that information? What will you do if you can’t find the type of information you are looking for?
- Are you writing to persuade?
- What position are you trying to persuade the audience to accept?
- Do you have a clear understanding of the argument’s other side(s)?
- Can you fully and fairly summarize the opposition’s arguments? Do you have solid strategy for addressing counterarguments?
- If not, what other information will you need in order to be able to address the opposition?
- Do you have strong reasons in support of your position?
- Do you have adequate evidence to support your reasons? If you don’t have enough evidence to support either pro or con, jot down answers to the following: What kinds of data will you need? Where will you look for that information? What will you do if you can’t find the material you need?
2. What is your topic?
- Do you have a specific approach or point related to your topic, i.e., do you have something to say about the topic?
- Can you narrow the topic to a subject about which you are interested and/or knowledgeable?
- After considering your raw material, is there a group of ideas that work together in some way? If so, can you articulate that overarching point?
- What parts of your raw material will not be suitable for this piece? (Some ideas that don’t fit this piece may still have loads of potential – stash these ideas for another time!)
3. What does the writing situation require?
- For writing in a professional setting, do you know what type of document format this piece should follow (i.e., proposal, feasibility study, report, evaluation, performance review, memo, letter, summary, research brief, etc.)?
- Have you written this sort of document before? If not, are there samples available?
- For writing in an academic setting, do you know what type of assignment the piece is (i.e., lab report, analysis, position paper, synthesis, critique, summary, informative report, annotated bibliography, take-home essay exam, etc.)?
- Has your teacher or professor given you a specific topic to cover or question to answer? If so, do you understand the question? If you don’t understand it, jot down some things that confuse you and send the professor an email or ask about it in class.
- Are there particular requirements concerning page length or number of paragraphs that you should keep in mind when establishing a plan for the document?
I hope this simple checklist will save you time as you make the transition from invention to planning. Of course, this reflection doesn’t lock you in to any one set of ideas. Sometimes, you don’t know what really works in a piece until you try writing about it. But asking yourself these questions will help clarify the course on which you’re sailing. As for navigating the route – and surviving those sea monsters – that’s what the rest of the writing process is for.