A planner’s approach to the first draft


Writing a draft. Mmm. The word ‘writing’ suggests that all you have to do is sit down and type or scribble away. And lo and behold a text is born.

But there are different pathways to writing a draft. Some are less freeform than others. As Helen Sword suggests, academic writers are generally either planners or free writers. And if you are a planner, writing a draft is often as much about assembling and choreographing as it is working with either a pen and paper or on a keyboard and screen.

For planners, ‘writing a draft’ is not simply about generating text. That’s necessary of course and you can’t do without all the words. But planners see the real work of drafting as ‘getting the right stuff in the right order’.

That phrase –  getting the right stuff in the right order – is important to the planner.

Planners like to make sure that what is eventually down on the page is roughly the shape of the final text. None of this thousands of words too much that need to be organised. Planners like to write to a word budget. Planners need to make sure that the moves in the paper make sense and are sufficient to make their case. Planners need to see that they don’t have to move huge slabs of text somewhere else. Or get rid of giant bits altogether. Or go and find lots more references. Or add in more data.

So for a planner, writing a draft text, one that is ready for refining, usually consists of several steps. Some of these steps might be combined. But they are specific activities.

I’m a planner, just in case you hadn’t guessed. I usually set out writing a draft in these five stages:

  1. Work out what the text is going to be about – grasping the big idea

Most academic texts, be they a journal article, a chapter in a thesis or book, a professional paper or even a blog post, have a big idea. Lots of journal articles and books and chapters are rejected because they don’t have a big idea, or because they try to fit more than one big idea into one paper.

Here’s some strategies you might try to locate your big idea.

  • Free writing, particularly looping
  • Writing chunks about bits of stuff that seem to be both important and part of the picture. Once these are written, you can think about what they have in common or what holds them all together -that’s generally the big idea.

2. Sort out the argument or narrative.

This is a step on from thinking about the big idea. You first of all write about the big idea as the contribution that you are going to make. You then sort out how that contribution needs to be staged. What moves you need to make. Whether you think about your text as a report, narrative or argument (and a lot of academic writing is an argument), you have to get clear how you’re going to present – or choreograph – it.

Here’s where these next two strategies can be very helpful.

  • Writing the title can help you hone, pare down the big idea into something short, snappy and punchy.
  • Move on to a Tiny Text. Writing small allows you to work out the composition of the major moves you need to make. You can of course make an outline now, but the problem is that outlines generally name the content rather than actually construct the argument/narrative. Working on a mini-me of the text to come is an economical way to test out various options. And the order of the stuff.

3. Get the stuff – the raw material – sorted out.

It’s important not to ignore your writing preparation, your mis-en-place. If you anticipate what you need, you don’t have break your train of thinking/writing too much by going off on a search.

Getting the stuff sorted means pulling together the spread sheets, written chunks, mind maps, things you are going to reference (maybe as sub-libraries in your bibliographic software and piles of stuff on the floor), analysed data, notes, images and so on. Once upon a time you might have got this together materially, in a folder or filebox. These days you’re more likely to use software like Scrivener or a simple desktop digital folder to do the same compiling work. I still find I have some books in my heap, but you may not.

4. Sort the stuff into the right order.

Once you have a Tiny Text and all the stuff you think you will need, you can then roughly assemble your paper. As you are doing this, you may find you need to circle back to points 1-3 and adjust them. Or you may even have a new and better idea to work with. or you may find that some things you initially thought would just be a small point actually turns out to be bigger – and vice versa.

There are a lot of ways to combine the stuff you have gathered together with your Tiny Text. Your goal is to make the Tiny Text bigger but not write the full draft. So you might find it handy to try any or all of the following:

(People often send me pictures of this stage of their writing – often whole walls covered in postits and bluetacked notes. )

Once you’ve adjusted what seems to be the right order-right stuff, you can now go on to generate a full draft.

5. Check for content and order. 

Once you’ve got your full set of words, it is of course entirely possible that the text still needs some adjustment.

A really simple way of checking whether you have the right stuff in the right order is to try a reverse outline. This is where you simply write the headings and the first and last sentence of every paragraph into a separate document, read them through and then see if they make sense. You check for order and for omission and repetition. You can also check whether the weighting you have given to particular moves in the argument/narrative seem OK.

So there you are.

That’s a planning approach to drafting. It’s not the only one around. But you may like to try it out- or even a selection of the strategies – to see how it works for you.


I was reminded of the importance of the phrase ‘getting the right stuff in the right order’ a couple of weeks ago when talking to my colleague Dr Lynn Nygaard. Lynn is a former editor and knows a lot about writing and you can find some of her work here. So thanks to Lynn not only for the coffee, but also for the big idea for this little post.