Getting Started on Structure for an Article or Academic Book

Chances are you are reading this because writing your projects in the past have led to a big messy patches that were very hard to get through.

It kind of feels like extremely thin copper wires are tangling in your brain and also coming out of your head, poking out from two to four inches, although when you look in the mirror they are nowhere to be seen.

Evidence for it can be seen on the computer, though:

Multiple (I mean multiple!) versions of drafts exist on the hard drive.

There are many different unfinished projects, articles and chapters each of which going in three directions at once, none of which are finished.

There are hybrid combination monsters of old writing and new writing, with huge gaps of non-writing time in-between, not to mention that out there in the world other people have been writing and publishing, there has been progress in scholarship between those gaps and of course also history has not ceased to march on and there have been a few developments in current events (except for consequences for the President).

And you are not the same person or thinker now that you were last year, let alone years ago.

And if you stepped back and looked at all the work and thought you’ve put in, and what has come out finished on the other end, something is not adding up.

Now, don’t get me wrong, a bit of messy non-progress can be a good thing. In any project that actually means something to you, there are going to be rough patches and it’s going to be hard to process them and move forward.

A lot of the mucking about in the swamps has actually been productive in ways you can’t see.
But when it comes down it, in the end you want to produce and finish something.

And that’s why when you’ve already travelled this difficult road a bit, you are going to want to try it another way, and start, or re-start, with a plan for your writing.

Now if you’ve read my free ebooks on academic writing, you know that the first thing I recommend is you have a plan for each day, if not each writing session!

But to do that you’ll need a bigger scheme for the context of that daily writing, a sense of the whole.

So that’s what this article is all about. Some of this will seem very simple and obvious to some, but the point is not how mysterious it is, but that you do it.

If you are just starting out a new project, great! Do this first.

If you are trying to bring a chaotic project back from the brink, if it is leeching blood, gears, springs, and bursting with unfinished ideas and hopes and dreams, then so much the better that you get this scheme going now before you attempt to flail and thrash about trying to control your monster.

Step One: Loosen Things Up First

So here’s the easiest part of it for someone like you or me, who has a lot of sprawling and intermingling ideas, and this works whether you are starting out or whether you are forming the swamp monster out of the already partially written swamp.

Get a big piece of paper or papers and dump all your ideas down in writing, scribbles, or scratches. You could set a timer and just go. This stage is crucial even if you already know what your ideas and content is because you’ve already written a draft. Get whatever comes to mind down. Write it any which way. Write it fast. All your ideas, topics, points, arguments and essential content, in so far as you know or suspect what they might be and in any state of completion or incompletion.

Now is the time to be messy! Really, really messy! Keep writing, keep going, until you reach your time limit or feel you’ve got it all out.
You don’t have to get it all out though. But get a lot.

You don’t have to put in a lot of time. But do put in some. I would say a minimum of 20 minutes, or if you can’t speed dump, then 30.

Of course what you see is not necessarily a faithful stand-in for the writing you’ve already done, if any, nor is it a prediction of the piece you will create.

But it does tell you something about what comes to mind, what is top of mind for you, or if you are just starting, what this thingy could be about.

Go to this writing with pen, pencil, color, highlight, whatever to further emphasize important things that stick out to you.

Step Two: See the Patterns

Identify things in your dump that belong together. Perhaps they can be in the same sections of an article or the same chapter in a book. You might write a second version of the dump which has columns or separate pages for the clumps of things that belong together and which might represent chapters or sections.

But usually you won’t do that without also consulting your more contemplative and mindful side. And that’s because as an academic writer (and probably researcher) there may be certain “clumps” already defined by your research topics, locations, human subjects, etc. or by the conventions of your genre.

So there is a good chance when starting out a new project, and definitely if you’ve already been writing a project, that there are certain “piles” of research materials that belong together due to the nature of the world out there. You might have several locations, or several research questions, stories, or several events or time periods, whatever it is, that make for natural chapters, or it could be themes or in the most experimental work, whatever strikes your associations.

If you do have natural piles, then start with these and modify them in light of your dump, or match up the dumps with the piles. In other words get them to coincide more or less based on your feeling right now. Make a label for each pile, each of which might be a chapter, or in the case of an article, each would be a section or movement. The labels can be chapter titles or section headings or just personal labels for your use.

If it’s a book that is more about theory, philosophy, ideas and not so much about research, the piles are going to be groups of ideas or arguments.

Not everything is going to fit perfectly. You may also have to eliminate, for the time being, some piles that seem too thin. You are going to have some attachment disorders in relationship to some material that you don’t want to lose.

That’s all okay because your goal here to get some clear piles, that’s all. You are only starting. Even if you only get 2 or 3, that is enough.

And if you have a big hot mess on your hands already, you are definitely going to lose some thin piles, and some piles will have to be broken up or shaved down.

So if that starts happening at this stage, just keep in mind that this is not a contract. And keep in mind that the most important thing for getting a messy academic project under control is cutting things out, so this is a tentative foray into that territory.

No final decisions have been made! Things are going to change.

The one thing you need, especially if it’s a hot mess already, is a sense that decisions CAN be made. Not that you are actually making them now. Not that you are sacrificing anything now.

Just the experience and sense that one way or another, decisions can be made, are able to be made. You want to get out of the position of feeling that decisions cannot be successfully made.

So go with it. Once you have your piles, you name them, with a tentative title that speaks to you and helps your focus. (I once called my methodological reflection section “Dave” but found that was not really helpful.)

That’s a start. This is a worthy thing to do.

I know this doesn’t sound like rocket science and it is not supposed to. It’s supposed to be simple! It’s power lies in getting done. No one can say “I don’t got time for that!”

Now, I’ll be following this article up with some neat ideas about what to do next if you have trouble getting started with writing about your piles. But for now, don’t skip these steps.

Take the dump. Make your piles. Give them meaningful names.

This is how you start, or restart.

It takes, at most, a couple hours.

Don’t be distracted and avoid this just because of how simple this is. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good!

There will be plenty of opportunities to get all worky-worky and even sweat a little, but don’t dive right into that.

Dive into this first!