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I am still trying to learn something I should have figured out a long time ago: that with sufficient preparation and organization (or outlining) I can write a pretty good essay.

In previous posts I’ve tried to figure out what is my current process? What are better ways of researching and writing that include doing extensive revision? And how can I produce higher quality writing in less time? I am enough of an optimist to believe that I can learn to improve my academic writing. So, I’ve revised the sequence of steps and included them below.

  1. Dream and brainstorm; generate questions
  2. Hunt and gather
  3. Plan and outline
  4. Write out my research questions in the outline
  5. Research and take notes
  6. Outline, review, study, make connections with the material in my notes; this is basically what I would do if I were preparing for an essay exam
  7. Draft longhand while referring to my notes as little as possible; this is only possible if one actually does step 6
  8. Type and print out the draft
  9. Revise the draft (I work best on the hard copy); these are all sorts of edits, from major reorganizational changes, to editing how paragraphs are structured, and detailed proofreading each sentence for correctness
  10. Apply the edits to the digital version of the document and print it out again
  11. Repeat 9 and 10 as many times as necessary

Do I do this? Not yet. I tend to jump around too much which means I’m wasting a lot of effort by writing before I’ve done sufficient research and organizational work.

Are the first three steps really just the same things? No. I need to start with creative and expansive thinking that allows me to survey the horizons. Then I need to touch base with recent publications in my field. Reading material that’s not on my working bibliography might be considered a waste of time, but usually there are connections that help stimulate richer analysis. I consider the reading I have to do in preparation for teaching as part this category. (This relates to a much bigger issue about whether good scholars can be good teachers and vice versa.) The third phase is when I begin to think about boundaries and audience: what areas do I need to cover and where do I draw the line? Who is going to read this and does my audience have any expectations about this material?

In my master’s program I had to learn how to prepare for an essay exam. (This wasn’t an assessment method used in my undergrad program in studio art.) For one of my master’s courses we were given the exam questions about 2 weeks before the exam which meant we could prepare outlines and work in groups to study. I practiced writing the exam essays at my kitchen table with an egg timer set to the 45 block allotted for each exam question and wrote out the essay prosed on black paper with the outline off to the side. I did very well on the exam.

Usually when I tell this story to undergrads it’s because I’m trying to explain a study technique and how it helped me write awesome essays for the exam. I’ve overlooked the other learning from the experience that with sufficient preparation (doing the readings) and organization (planning and outlining) I was able to learn a lot of material and write some pretty good essays in a relatively short period of time.