Writing: Organization

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.

Personal Organization

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.

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Author: C. Scott Wyatt