Further writing tools and tips part 2: recent successes

This is the second of two posts of my latest favourite links on writing and planning for writing. The first covered tools or ideas that I tried but didn’t have success with (although I still recommend you try them). It’s worth a try of any tool or structure you encounter, giving it a good go, and then considering how well it is working for your writing. I’m not affiliated to any of these websites and programmes. Here, I introduce some tools which I have had more success with lately.

Thomas Basboell (at http://secondlanguage.blogspot.ca/p/40-paragraphs.html) says that a standard academic journal paper should be written in 40 paragraphs:
1-2 Introductory remarks
3-7 General background
8-12 Theory that informs the analysis
13-17 Method
18-22 Analysis / Results 1
23-27 Analysis / Results 2
28-32 Analysis / Results 3
33-38 Implications
38-40 Concluding remarks
We need to be able to articulate ourselves in these structures because this is the kind of set up that readers will expect to see. He suggests 40 paragraphs at approximately 200 words each. This was a structure that I could instantly apply to a paper I’m writing, and I plotted out a numbered list 1-40, as above, noting the topic of each paragraph. This proved really useful. I have a habit of writing page long paragraphs, so now I am conscious of the point of each paragraph and how long it should be. However, 40 x 200 words makes 8000 words, and most journals in my field want papers of between 5000-8000 including references. So, personally I set on paragraphs of approximately 150 words, to end up with a paper of about 6000.

A typical paragraph structure from a number of sources suggests that there are three phases to each paragraph.
Topic: one key sentence on what it is all about
Body: core argument
Wrap: pull together, offer conclusions, set up for the next paragraph

Basboell suggests:
One key sentence;
Two sentences explaining or defining the previous;
Keep going like that. Keep writing for 27 minutes.
That is, he suggests concentrating on just one paragraph at a time, for 27 minutes, not deviating from it during that time, and then taking a 3 minute break before the next paragraph. He points out that this means you’re concentrating at a smaller level of detail than you might normally, able to hone your sentences multiple times. This is probably better in editing stages than early draft stages when you just want to sketch out all the ideas. Personally I am reluctant to do any technique like the 25 minute pomodoro or the 27 minute paragraph as I explained in my previous blog post, but give it a try because it might work for you.
One good point about the structure key sentence, explanation, further explanation, is that it made me think about each paragraph having its own take home message, not just a single one for the whole paper that you then try to argue throughout, potentially repeating or contradicting yourself, or drawing out the argument longer than it needs. On a smaller level, there are multiple messages that you can write about.
There’s a whole host of valuable lessons on writing on Thomas Basboell’s website.

Similar advice on arguments can be found in a post on TAA blog (On Textbook and Academic Writing) – on a simple level, avoid writing lists when you create a literature review or academic argument. This is not a new or mind-blowing idea but something worth keeping in mind. The site also has a range of interesting posts on writing and publishing.

My most recent find in terms of writing is a blog, writing guide and podcast series http://jameshaytonphd.com/, self-identifying as a bit unconventional compared to usual academic writing advice – for instance suggesting that “just writing” is a bit panicky, leading to poorer work than if you take some time to plan for quality not quantity. Hayton questions the idea that practice makes perfect, that writing and writing will eventually get you where you need to be. This fits with my own experience of tools designed to just get words out on the page. However, if you recognise the difference between writing for yourself (practice, brain dump, etc) and writing for an audience, you can more successfully use both types.

Of all the latest tools I’ve trialled, the most useful and productive has been the 40 paragraph structure. Coupled with Scrivener, which I recently started using, I’ve been able to refine a paper that I’ve worked on for a long time. It’s got to a place where I can see what the paper can be when finished, because I broke it down into sections and then paragraphs. Scrivener enables you to subdivide your work; creating new files within sub-folders within folders is easy, encouraging you to label each paragraph and section with a heading and, if you like, a short explanation: your topic or thesis sentence, perhaps. This fits right in with the 40 paragraph structure: just create 40 small sections or files and write one paragraph in each. Scrivener’s index card view is useful for then visualising the order of your work. Both these things help you avoid paragraph-less rambling.
Another useful feature for me is having two sections open at once, side by side. I like to be able to refer back to the literature review while writing the discussion, for instance. This gets closer to one of my favourite things on Word which is zooming out to three page view – it ruins my eyes on a small screen but I like to have a broader sense of my whole paper, not just being able to see one paragraph at a time. *And* Scrivener remembers what you had open and where you were last time, opening at the same point or the same section(s). Handy.
However, I have a couple of niggles. The blank screen and slimmed down format possibilities are clean, but if you like page numbers (and seeing how many pages you’ve written) you don’t get that (that I can see). Also, I like Word’s track changes, especially if you are doing a big edit and worry you might cut out something you subsequently want back. I’m sticking with Scrivener, at least for projects I’m writing solo.

Thanks for reading and I hope these practical experiences of some simple writing tools help.


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One thought on “Further writing tools and tips part 2: recent successes

  1. […] uncertainty about writing. Are we a community suffering from writer’s block? This post and a follow up share my experiences with some of the writing and planning tools and tips that I’ve tried for […]

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