When I started my PhD my best friend gave me this Gary Larsen cartoon clipping. She’d inked out ‘posse’ and put in ‘thesis.
The disorderly heap of men and horses that 'Mathews' has thrown together, bore a definite relation to the drifting, dreamy, pointless, and circular chapters I was writing.
So I organised my posse. Some of the advice and techniques I got from my mandatory Uni Study Centre sessions we had in first semester, helped me jump-start the project, organise my writing and my time, and to see the project through to the end. The advice must’ve worked because I did become 'Dr Downey', and am happy to share my knowledge of the basics here.
I will be talking about three kinds of writing plans today. The first one is the 'bubble map' or balloon diagram.
How to do a Bubble map? Always do these on big A3 paper, using a chunky marker or 2B pencil or crayon so you can connect with your inner child and brainstorm freely. You also want to be able to see the distances you intuitively put between bubbles, because these mimic the hierarchy that will come later in the order that marshal your arguments.
Your main research question goes in a big bubble smack in the middle of the page. Then just start drawing in other bubbles containing everything else you think that bears on this topic. You can use as many arrows connecting these (one way or both ways!) as you want – as long as you feel by the end that you have diagrammed the ‘everything’ about your topic.
The Bubble map then becomes your guide to your literature search and may include several keywords for your online searches. So lets scroll forward a few days or weeks. Back again? Okay the next planning diagram is more detailed it’s basically your Writing Plan – these are easiest done first in pencil, on big paper again. You can transfer it to digital quickly enough.
Now you’ve done your reading and you know all about the previous academic 'conversations' that have been going on in your particular topic room and you know which of these are more, or less relevant. The Writing Plan is also incredibly useful in ‘picking up the threads’ again if you’ve had to put your essay or chapter down for a while due to illness or other commitments. You can see at a glance, where you’ve been, and where you’re going.
Your Writing Plan headings are:
- Intro (perky quote or provocation)
- Background Statement (why is, and why has, this topic been broadly important)
- The problem? And then the Hero proposition (how I will address the problem - fill the gap)
- Aims Outline and Methods – a Brief survey of key thinkers’ viewpoints and approaches / as a lit review then your method/framework and why it’s best
- Topic (instance or exemplar of your argument) 1 – (or Case Study 1) / then Topic 2 / then Possible Topic 3
Then all you need to do is type up the Writing Plan from the hard copy – and start filling in your paragraphs for each planned section! To get the ‘look’ of the pencil version of the Writing plan again – like a bird’s eye view so you can see the overall structure – just use Outline Tools to move and edit headings, change heading levels, and move text around. You can also control how much detail you see. See final illustration above.
Voilà – and you’re on the way to your Sheriff’s badge.
So go on, Bubble, plan, and birds ‘eye view your way into organised essay/chapter writing.