Systematizing Writing

Posted September 22, 2015 by Rosangela Canino-Koning in Graduate School, Productivity / 0 Comments

Writing big projects is hard.

Virtually every single graduate student I know struggles with writing to some degree. Some hide it better than others. Some power through it with pure, teeth-clenching grit. Many simply fail.

Large, multi-year projects, such as books, dissertations, or theses, require extensive scheduling, planning, and project management. However, few advanced students are equipped with the tools to tackle such large projects. The smartest students, in particular, tend to struggle, because up to this point in their careers, their intelligence and curiosity were able to carry them through, without having to employ the kinds of support frameworks that everyone insisted were required to complete their freshmen papers.

Then, when faced with their comprehensive exams and theses, these students find themselves facing a mountain of work, with little idea of how to tackle it. You can’t pull an all-nighter to finish your dissertation.

To compound the problem, the smartest of students aren’t used to failing. It is easy to fall into a death-spiral of impostor-syndrome when faced with a seemingly uncrossable continent of work, while witnessing others graduating around you. How do they do it? Are they really so much smarter than me? Do I belong here at all? What is their secret?

How do successful people do it?

Obviously, people do manage to write books, and pass comprehensive exams, and graduate. And, it turns out, there is a secret. Well, it’s not really a secret. You were taught how to do this in your freshmen writing seminar. The secret is outlining.

What? Outlining? That’s it?

Ok, yes, there’s more to it than just outlining. There’s project management. There’s time management. There’s motivation and productivity and anxiety management. There’s life balance management. Lots of managements. And lots has been written about these topics, from Pomodoro to GTD to WSD.

However, the important thing to keep in mind is that none of those things will carry you from the beautiful, ephemeral, thought-nugget land of your research idea across the ocean to the world of a published hard-back with your name on it in gold letters and a stamp.

The ship that carries you across that sea is your outline.

Procrastination City

Professional writers, when asked about what they spend their working time on, say that only 10% of their time is spent on actual writing, and another 10% on editing. A full 80% of their time is spent on brainstorming, thinking, and research. In other words, the vast majority of professional writers barely “write” at all. Crazy, huh?

The Writing Process
The Writing Process

Well, maybe not so crazy. Pros are working that whole 80% of the time, but it’s not necessarily producing usable prose. It’s producing ideas and organization and writing things down — in an outline.

So, it might be useful to re-conceptualize the “writing” work as more than just producing prose. Let’s call the whole process Writing, and rename the production of usable prose from “writing” to “prosing.”

In summary, writers Write 100% of the time, but only “prose” and edit 20% of the time. That seems more reasonable.

The Outline.

Now we’re getting down to brass-tacks. How should one go about composing an outline?

There are several phases, and the process is messy and recursive. If you’re not comfortable with messy and recursive, you should probably stop now.

First, you start with brainstorming. This is exactly what it sounds like. You get a piece of paper, white-board, your friend’s arm (with permission!), or whatever other medium you prefer, and write down some ideas. Draw some arrows, doodle a bit. Crumple it up and start over. Leave and come back later. Go nuts! As long as your ideas are flowing, you’re getting somewhere.

Brainstorming this post
Brainstorming this post

Next, organize your ideas in some kind of hierarchical format (hint, hint, an outline). At this point, your outline will probably be pretty sparse. That’s ok. You should probably go get a cup of coffee at this point, and come back later.

Initial post outline
Initial post outline

The next step is kind of hard. You fill in the outline. Yes, read that sentence again.

You do it incrementally. You fill in more detail. You re-arrange. You fill in more detail. You keep doing that for a while, until your outline starts to look like a paper-skeleton. If you don’t know what to put in a spot, put a note there saying “FILL ME IN LATER” in bold, and move on.

You keep researching, and thinking. You keep rearranging. You show it to your advisor or your writing group peers (you have a writing group, right?). You meet your “writing” deadlines, per your project plan. You keep doing this until the outline is starting to look a whole lot like an actual paper, minus the grammar and punctuation.

Details Plskthx

Ok, so the title of this post was “Systematizing Writing.” What I’ve given you so far is pretty light on the systema. So, here are some bullets.

Step 1: Brainstorming

  • A: Free-writing – think about stuff, and write down some prose.

  • B: Draw and doodle your ideas and how they relate.

Step 2: First-pass Outline

  • Organize the paper into the relevant sections. If it’s a dissertation, you should have a pretty good idea of what your chapters need to be already. If it’s a paper, there’s probably an Abstract, and Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, etc.

  • Fill it in with un-grammatical bullets with the general ideas you want to cover.

Step 3: Go-To Step 1 and 2

  • Read some papers, add more to your outline, brainstorm some more. Keep filling things in. Develop and re-organize your ideas. Follow the pyramid structure of organization. Keep filling it in, and showing it to people and getting feedback. Only you know what needs to happen next.

Step 4: Profit! Deep Outline

  • Many weeks later, you will have a healthy outline. If your initial step-2b outline was like a skeleton, this outline should look like a Titan, with all the muscles and connective tissue, just no skin.

  • Now, you will take every bullet-point and ungrammatical sentence fragment and convert it into a sentence. There will be a fair bit of reorganization that results from this phase, as you discover what does and doesn’t flow. That’s fine.

Step 5: Prose It!

  • Say goodbye to the outline, take all these sentence bullets, and put them together in a writing program of your choice. Ideally, there will be very little reorganization at this point, so it’s pretty safe to leave the confines of OmniOutliner. Send the draft to your advisor. They will be pleased.

Step 6: Polish and Publish

  • Self-explanatory. Read things like “Bugs in Writing” for more information.


The outlining method of writing is intended to do a couple of important things that can’t be done with the traditional “light-outline + verbal diarrhea” method of writing.

First, it breaks your ideas down into easy-to see chunks. No important ideas will be buried in the middle of a paragraph. The chunks are easy to re-organize for clarity and flow. New ideas are trivial to integrate. And you can actually reward your progress by counting the chunks that you’ve worked on, since idea-chunks are a more accurate measure of progress than word-count.

Second, it removes the temptation to word-smith.  Like in software, it is almost always a bad idea to prematurely optimize your prose. At best, it’s a massive waste of time, and at worst, you get lost in bunny trails that lead to incorrect conclusions.

Third, your final paper will be better organized, since it is trivial to move ideas around to the most appropriate places. Clarity also improves, because it is easier to see when ideas need more support or explanation.

Finally, because everything is, by its nature, broken into smaller and smaller pieces, it’s harder to be overwhelmed by the size of the project you are working on. This mountain becomes tractable. You can just work on the little part that you need to work on, and ignore the rest until it’s appropriate to move on. This pays dividends in productivity and reduced stress.

Obviously, I can’t promise that this method will work any better for you than some other method. I know, however, that it works for me, and that it was a revelation when I started implementing it. I can say, with confidence, that it changed my life. And character arcs are always good, right?

What is your strategy for writing? Have you tried using outlining software such as OmniOutliner before?

Rosangela Canino-Koning

I'm interested in evolvability, sexual selection, changing environments, and genotype/phenotype landscapes.

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