Dealing with the blank page!
Last (but hopefully not least) this post is about how I plan, research and write an essay. My main issue when starting a piece of work is the blank page, being at square 1 with no words on paper frustrates me.
I am going to deal with things in three broad areas as the way I write can generally be split into a spider diagram/word cloud stage, which leads into a skeleton writing stage and finally a fleshing out stage. I also like to change the scenery in which I work in from time to time, I sometimes attend shut up and write sessions, or just work in a café as the change of environment can help me focus.
Prior to any writing, I need to read, and I will read a variety of sources; my PhD research concerns virtual currencies and money laundering, so my reading can be quite wide, and because my research concerns government policy, I often start with government commissioned reports proposing changes in the law, or new laws, as there are very few relevant laws applicable to virtual currencies.
Amy suggested a list of questions she asks herself when starting research; my approach is similar, if a little less formal, and I start by re-reading the question, if there is one, and jotting down a few key terms or objectives of the piece of writing. These key terms will assist me when I am undertaking my broad Westlaw search, similar to Coralie’s. I will first determine if there are primary sources I need to read, then I will use my key words to search Westlaw for relevant journal articles, I will then widen my search to the library database using similar key terms.
Spider diagrams and Word Clouds
When I am reading I find it helpful to write key points down, I often do this in the form of a spider diagram or word cloud. This allows me to group similar points from multiple authors in naturally forming clusters on a page, which in turn can assist me in determining the key arguments I will make in my writing. A further benefit to this method is that I find I am more likely to understand/remember something if I have physically written it out; this may sound strange, but the tactile nature of hand writing my thoughts, or the key points of an article, helps it stick in my mind. I will organise my ideas on the page and also use colours to group ideas on the page, as you can see from my messy example above.
Once I have completed my main reading, I use the spider diagrams to begin to plan the essay; I will often number the clusters of words, which will then form sections of my essay. Having the plan in this form allows me to physically organise my thoughts on the topic and I can draw links between these thoughts, which helps me to formulate my arguments; this is really important as it makes it easier to analyse a topic. Once I have my numbered and linked spider diagrams I will move on to the skeleton stage.
The skeleton stage is simply my spider diagrams in a linear form, I will set out my essay in bullet point form, with each numbered key point forming a heading in my work. Under each heading I will set out the points I wish to make under that term and I will include any quotes I wish to use, adding references for them as I go. Once I have completed this for each heading I will have a skeleton of my essay. I will play my conclusion at this stage as well, it will be clear from my plan which points I will make in the conclusion of my essay. It will not be in full prose, but my main points will be visible, at this point my skeleton needs meat adding to the bones. I SAVE A COPY OF MY SKELETON ARGUMENT NOW!
The fleshing out stage simply means expanding my skeleton points into full sentences. I find it helpful to change the colour of the skeleton argument to another colour, usually red, and then I will write my essay around this red text. The red text forms a checklist for me to follow; I will only delete the red text when I am happy that I have addressed the point I wanted to make in the red text. This keeps my essay plan highlighted in my document to prevent me from deviating from the plan. While I will delete the red text as I have addressed each point, I will keep and refer to my saved skeleton essay plan when I am proof reading the essay.
Tying the Introduction and Conclusion
I will not write my introduction until I have drafted all other sections, this may sounds backwards but the point of the introduction is to guide the reader through what they are about to read (or in some cases for them to decide if they will read it at all) and therefore I am in the best position to do this once I have written the text the reader needs to be guided through. I will also ensure I link my introduction to the conclusion; ensuring I have addressed the questions I aim to answer, this is an easier way, as I am framing the questions after I have answered them.
Take a break!
This process does not take place in one sitting, I need to step away from my research, contemplate, and come back to it again. I advocate stepping away from your work for a number of reasons, firstly you will lose concentration if you try to do it all at once, and if you don’t lose concentration in that time it’s likely you have not spent long enough doing it. Secondly, you think more about things without thinking than you think… This sounds stupid, but taking a break, and thinking about something else, can often lead to you quietly solving a problem you had with your work. I find cycling works for me to go out and think about very little, other forms of exercise are great too, but it doesn’t need to be exercise, it could be cooking, eating, reading, watching countdown, whatever allows you to relax. Thirdly, by coming back to your work with fresh eyes you will see your mistakes and see new links; I always need to re-read my work a day after finishing writing, the gap in time allows me to see the small errors I do not see because I am so familiar with the text. This is best done by printing your work off if you can; it’s much easier to spot errors on a page rather than a screen.
People write in different ways, this is a way I find works for me, my main bits of advice are to always fully plan before you write the essay, take plenty of breaks, and by writing things down I find I can see my thoughts and I am not looking at a blank page.