Getting started: the writing process
Working with a large body of text is part of an ongoing creative process that starts before you begin the actual writing. Such processes entail different phases that may alternate between flow and inspiration, and slower phases in which the writing is characterised by hard work rather than by being enjoyable. Doubt and uncertainty often reflect that the work has not yet found its right shape. At other times, you may find yourself easily inspired, and the most unexpected aspects of the work can prove important to you. Enjoy it – and remember that creative processes have their ups and downs.
You may also experience anxiety about your text, or a discomfort that is difficult to explain. This could mean that you need to think along different lines and perhaps reorganise your text. As soon as you start to address the problem, you will find solutions and your ideas will begin to fall into place. The structure of your text is right once it no longer makes sense to reorganise the different parts.
When should I start writing?
Inexperienced writers tend to think that they cannot begin to write until they have obtained a complete overview of their topic. They may be under the impression that good texts are created by placing one perfect sentence after another. With such an approach, it will take far too long to get started. In reality, most writers need to rewrite their texts – often several times. To write well often means to rewrite.
As a student, you are often driven by a question of ‘why’. This is also the point of departure for many researchers. The researcher has doubts about a theory or observes something for which there is no obvious explanation. She explores phenomena, talks to other scholars from her field, writes down her ideas, looks for opportunities, takes notes and freewrites. Do as the researcher does: use your curiosity and sense of uncertainty creatively. As your ideas about your text become increasingly clearer, uncertainties will gradually fade away.
Think and write
Getting started with your writing process is more important than being in complete control of the product. There are many different writing techniques that may help you develop your initial ideas on a topic. For instance, you can try brainstorming, mind maps, developing ideas and freewriting. These techniques are described below. As you begin to write, you will most likely experience your project becoming increasingly clear to you.
Begin by writing about something you find enjoyable, and write only a little at a time. If you allow yourself to take breaks before you have emptied yourself, it is easier to pick it up again afterwards. Present your text to fellow students, colleagues or others, and ask for feedback even when you are not yet satisfied with your work. Good writers spend time on revision, and they often have to reorganise their texts several times.
There is no right or wrong way to begin the writing process. It is important to find out what works best for you. Do you normally contemplate on your own work for a while first, before producing a more or less finished text? Or do you need to write in order to get started even when you do not know where it will lead you, and then you spend time structuring, revising and elaborating your draft afterwards? Try different methods to find out how you work best.
There are (at least) two strategies for producing text:
Text before structure
Write down everything you know about a topic.
Read through what you have written and organise your text into paragraphs by the use of keywords or headings.
Structure your text based on this outline.
Structure before text
Create an outline with headings.
Fill in bits of text under the different headings.
Adjust your outline when necessary.
There is no right or wrong way to begin the writing process. It is important to find out what works best for you. Do you normally contemplate your own work for a while first, before producing a more or less finished text? Or do you need to write in order to get started even when you do not know where it will lead you, and then you spend time structuring, revising and elaborating on draft afterwards? Try different methods to find out how you work best.
Techniques for getting started
Below you will find a few different techniques that may be useful when approaching a thesis statement or research question, or an outline for an assignment.
Brainstorming is an excellent tool for gaining an overview of what you know about a topic and what you need to explore further. It can also be used to fix the limits of your assignment topic and to create a draft outline. Write down all associations to the topic you can think of, without censoring yourself. During brainstorming, you will come up with keywords, phrases or sentences that you can develop in your text.
Write down key words and phrases
Draw relevant figures/graphs/charts
Make note of important book titles, journal articles and different types of research
Ideas can pop up any time – always have pen and paper in close reach…
Brainstorming is a private text meant to generate a joy of writing.
If you don’t have a pen and paper when an idea comes to you, you may have a mobile phone at hand. Write down the idea as an SMS or on a note page on your phone, or you may even make a voice recording.
Write your main idea/topic in the middle of a sheet of paper.
Draw lines or branches from your main idea and write a keyword at the end of each line/branch.
Add smaller lines or branches with details or subordinate keywords.
Write down the ideas as they come to you – be spontaneous!
Finally, Look for connections and relationships between ideas that you want to highlight, focus on, and potentially develop further.
Use colours to highlight topics, ideas and connections.
Use illustrations and symbols.
Use lowercase letters. Lowercase letters are easier to read and remember than uppercase letters.
When developing ideas, it may be useful to write a private, creative text to help you get started with the writing process. The purpose of such a text is to learn, develop ideas and engage with them. By writing without thinking about the end product, you may discover new possibilities and directions that your ideas may take.
Write down everything you know and everything that you want to find out about the topic in a more or less coherent text.
Focus on ideas and content.
Write without paying attention to the formalities of the text. The purpose is to develop ideas and thoughts away from critical eyes.
Freewriting is a technique for developing your ideas further.
Chose the topic you want develop, and make this the heading.
Write non-stop for 10–30 minutes, without lifting your fingers from the keyboard or your pen from the paper.
Read through your text, underline or highlight keywords and important phrases, and begin to organise your ideas.
Divide the text into smaller sections, and create new headings for these.
From theme to thesis
Some people are fortunate enough to know exactly what they want to explore before they start writing. Others need to think, take notes, conduct literature searches, and read a lot, before they can formulate a research question. This question often needs to be adjusted during the writing process. There are several ways to start the writing process, but it may be a good idea to start developing a preliminary question at an early stage.
Brainstorming some initial ideas can help you develop a research question. Write down all the questions and ideas you can think of - you can critically re-examine and delete the ones you do not like afterwards. As you become more familiar with the topic, you will gradually be able to pose more precise questions. Perhaps new questions will arise, and you will come up with new angles that you had not previously thought about. Reflect upon what interests you th emost. Why do you find this so engaging? Formulate this in full sentences that can later be used as a starting point for your introduction.
Write down at least five variants of a research question that interests you.
Choose the two you like best.
Take a blank sheet of paper or a new document and write five new variants based on these two.
Pick the two you like best of these five.
Take a new sheet of paper or document and write another five variants based on these two.
Pick the two you like best.
Continue this activity until you have a research question that you are truly happy with, and that you will be able to answer successfully.
How to keep going
In order to keep track of your writing, it can be a good idea to maintain a log or a writing diary of what you have done so far and what you need to do. You could also start a blog to get input and feedback from others during the writing process. Some blogs have a personal style resembling a diary, whereas others are intended as professional fora for discussions of works in progress. Find out what works for you.
Talk about your writing
Talk about your assignment with fellow students and others who want to listen. Putting your ideas into words and explaining them to others can be very helpful. Why do you find this particular topic interesting? What do you wish to achieve? What research questions do you have in mind? How may they be answered? Presenting drafts and ideas to a fellow student can be an excellent way of getting started.