There are two types of organization we should address for students struggling with academic writing assignments: process organization and document organization.
Reminder: This blog entry is part of an ongoing series. Writing-related topics I am addressing include: organization, audience analysis, supporting arguments, and mastering genre norms. If you have specific questions be sure to ask and I’ll try to address them.
I am addressing “academic writing” in these posts, though I might discuss “creative writing” later in this series of essays.
High school teachers tell me that a lack of personal organization is the single greatest challenge for most high school students.
I am not organized. I know my colleagues would disagree, but my natural state is a complete lack of focus. Each day is a struggle to stay on task until something is finished — and too often I end up bouncing from distraction to distraction and not meeting self-imposed deadlines. Because I know I’m “Driven to Distraction” (quoting a well-known book title), I had to develop routines to keep me focused on my writing projects.
Curiously, many of the best writers I know fall into one of two extremes: those with laser-like focus and those, like me, lacking focus. Most students also fall into the “easily distracted” category. Hopefully my tips for organizing help students as well as many others.
Many of us imagine that we can multitask far better than any research suggests. Most research has found we do more things poorly when multitasking, but we believe we’re doing various tasks well. Doing one major task at a time remains the best way to perform that task. (An exception that I have located in the research: listening to instrumental classical music while working improves focus for many people. Notice, that’s instrumental music, not music videos on VH1 Classic.)
Distraction number one in my life is the Internet. I’m not going to claim that I was more focused before having a constant, high-speed network connection. Then again, I’ve had high-speed network access since 1987; the last time I didn’t have such a distraction was in high school.
- Planning on Paper
To deal with most distractions, I turn to working on paper. Yes, paper. While typewriters, computers, and dictation software have made it easier to write, nothing beats the distraction-free nature of blank paper and a pencil. Could I outline and brainstorm faster on a computer? Maybe, but that also assumes I wouldn’t end up distracted by tangential research.
One of the projects on my to-do list is updating a guide to desktop publishing. I am fascinated by typography, so I ended up on a multi-hour tangent last night researching a set of font designs. The research had nothing at all do to with what I should have been writing. Yes, the information might add interest to an essay, but the research was inessential to the project.
On paper, I would make a note to check a few facts and then keep writing. I wouldn’t find myself lost in a tangled web of research, literally, if I had been writing on paper. Losing focus means losing time, which eventually leads to a panicked last-minute rush to complete projects.
Though it might seem wasteful to many people, I keep the draft notes for each project on its own yellow legal pad. After I transcribe the notes and other scribblings from a pad to the computer, I tear off the pages and file them away, keeping many of the originals. The pad is then free for another project. I have to avoid mixing projects or I never finish a single one.
As a student and teacher, I keep one spiral-bound college-ruled notebook per class. I’ve tried the thicker multiple-subject notebooks under the theory that one notebook would reduce the risk of losing my notes. The real result: I flip through pages, get confused, worry about one class when I’m in another, and generally lose focus. One notebook per class works better for me. From that experience, I learned that one notebook or binder per writing project is also best for me.
- Checklists and Calendars
When I speak to teachers and students, I emphasize the importance of maintaining a schedule. Teachers and parents have to help students.
I use checklists and calendars, both on computer and on paper. Having a visual measure of my progress, as well as what remains to be done, helps me organize myself a little. I’ve written about the need to plan and organize on the Tameri website:
Note: I will be updating the Tameri page on the writing process as time permits; it is an incomplete discussion of the process.
For an academic paper, I create a schedule that leaves more time for writing than research. I do this because I will lose myself in research. I need to spend more time writing and revising than on research. Other people need to invest the bulk of their time on research. Whatever your personal strengths and weaknesses are, make sure that you schedule time accordingly.
- Writer’s Block
Stress can be its own distraction. When I have anything else on my mind, when something is bothering me, I cannot focus on anything else. Unfortunately, a lack of focus or problems sticking to my schedule causes stress. I believe that’s what many people mean when they talk about writer’s block: stress that halts the writing process.
The best way to avoid stress-related writer’s block is to reduce the possible causes of stress. For me, this means sticking to my schedule. I realize that’s easier said than done, but parents and teachers can help students with scheduling.
Once the writing starts, dealing with stress can involve using proven organizational techniques. In the next section, I’ll explain how following proven structures can help students compose academic papers. Following models is what most academic and professional writing does. Reminding students that relying on models is what even the best writers do can help reduce stress.
Organizing an Academic Paper
Academic writing is highly structured, which can help students as they prepare documents. I remind students that professors and research scientists rely on structured formats, which allows scholars to focus on the content instead of the structure. When someone suggests this isn’t creative, I remind them that various poetic forms are also rigidly structured — and that doesn’t stop poets from being creative.
Parents can help students by asking if the teacher or class textbook provides a model paper or at least an outline of the assignment structure. I’ll be posting some of the standard formats to the Tameri website, but nothing is a substitute for whatever models and guidelines are provided by an instructor.
High school students and incoming college students might want to focus on traditional “five paragraph essay” models. There are models of these based on their purposes in most academic writing textbooks. When a student challenges me on the usefulness of such structures, I can point to the models used to write doctoral dissertations. Men and women completing their doctorates know there is a model even for this “final” academic exercise:
I plan to post more about writing and academic paper organization in a few days.