A systematic approach can help to simplify the process of writing.
There is no known optimal approach to writing. Every person approaches writing differently. Every writing project has different objectives and requirements. Written documents evolve in different ways over time (Graham and Harris, 2016). Scientific writing presents challenges to students because writing often occurs in the context of learning unfamiliar information and concepts.
However, researchers have identified evidence-based practices that contribute to learning how to write effectively (Graham et al., 2015). For example, using defined strategies for planning, drafting, revising, and editing can contribute to writing (Graham et al., 2015).
Structure is one key to clarity despite complexity.
Having a specific approach to writing can help to break down the writing process into more manageable parts. For example, one potentially useful approach that is consistent with the principles that we have reviewed in the Reasoned Writing module could be a "recursive algorithm" that treats a paper as a "tree." By repeating a limited number of steps, we can systematically create and refine each section of a logical tree. For example, five potential steps are:
1) Do the research. Research involves gathering and organizing information. For a literature review or the Introduction section of a scientific paper, research typically involves finding previous studies that were peer-reviewed and published in reputable journals. Literature grids can help to organize the results of past research. Using clearly-defined hypotheses can help to organize the analysis of experimental findings (from the literature or that you have collected yourself).
2) List the independent and dependent variables. Enumerating all variables relevant to the immediate topic or question can clarify your thinking and help to select strong frameworks and create useful outlines. It can also be helpful to rank or prioritize the independent and dependent variables according to importance. First drafts can then focus on addressing only the variables that are most important to the arguments and conclusions of the specific section of the paper that you are working on.
3) Clearly and deliberately create an appropriate framework. Deliberately create a framework to structure the particular level of the written document that you are creating (e.g. the entire paper, a section of the paper, a specific paragraph). Most often, the framework connects the independent and dependent variables, and embodies the logical steps necessary for each connection. Most aspects of scientific papers will require trees and reasoned frameworks (although lists can also be helpful for explaining hierarchies, such as listing the measurable predictions associated with a general hypothesis). Creating conceptual and graphical frameworks helps people meaningfully understand information, and therefore can also contribute to clear communication. Importantly, selecting appropriate frameworks ensures that every element (fact, concept, etc.) is deliberately and clearly connected to one or more other elements to form a recognizable structure.
4) Use collected research to make the framework specific. For papers and sections of papers, specificity involves creating a strong outline. Strong outlines are constructed from statements that are clear, specific conclusions, linked to each other with logical transitions. When using a reasoned framework (a vast majority of the time), the outline clearly identifies the logic of the overall argument of the paper or the section. Using the research from step (1) above, you can informally come to tentative conclusions that form the basis for a specific outline. Making paragraphs specific involves using specific findings from the research (step 1 above) as premises of deductive or inductive arguments that support the conclusion of the paragraph. Repeat the conclusion of each paragraph in the topic sentence and concluding sentence of the paragraph.
5) Revision. Sometimes the process of specifying one section of a paper involves changing the conclusion of the section. For example, more closely thinking about the research findings used in the section may suggest a different conclusion than initially expected. Moreover, it may be necessary to do more research, which may require changes to the conclusion. Revising conclusions is a necessary and important part of reasoning and writing. However, changing the conclusion of one paragraph or section may have implications for other paragraphs or sections of the paper. Therefore, creating a specific argument may require you to critically evaluate all of the other aspects of the paper, and make any necessary changes (revisions).
6) Focus on the next (more specific) level of the paper, and repeat steps 1 to 5. For example, once you have selected an overall framework for a section and have constructed a strong outline, you can focus on each element of the outline (i.e. focus on defending each conclusion). Defending some conclusions may require multiple paragraphs, in which case the conclusion from the outline can become a subheading. Repeating steps 1 to 4 involves creating an outline within the sub-section delimited by the subheading, then focusing on each element of the sub-outline. Defending some conclusions may require a single paragraph, in which case the conclusion of the outline can become a topic sentence. Supporting the conclusive topic sentence involves using your research (from step 1) as premises, organized into deductive or inductive arguments with logical transitions.
The procedure that the Reasoned Writing framework suggests is hierarchical. Beginning by using steps 1 to 5 to outline the most-inclusive ("top") level of the hierarchy establishes a set of specific goals for each section of the paper. In terms of the analogy of a tree, the top-level outline clarifies the overall shape and branches of the tree. Once a set of overall goals and a structure are established, then it is possible to focus attention on specific areas of the outline ("branches") without needing to worry about higher-level arguments. The process of outlining can continue until it reaches a point where conclusions can be specific premises: statements of fact based on data. Sound or strong conclusions that are based on empirical data and self-contained (specific) are modular and unlikely to be changed by sections or conclusions of the paper. Therefore, using a repeated framework to hierarchically generate and fill in an outline can simplify the process of writing by limiting the amount of information that must be considered at any one time.
A systematic approach to writing papers can help to simplify the writing process. One effective approach is to deliberately select a framework for each section of the paper, and use outlines to organize research findings at increasingly-specific levels.