Narrative Outlines are a better way to plan chapters

Think -> Write -> Edit -> Polish

So, I’m hesitant about detailed plans because I notice that people often get stuck in them. They make a plan then have to do this crazy steeplechase race to get from point to point, and they end up getting tied in knots. Or they get stuck at the end of a paragraph with no guideline of how to get to the next paragraph, just a horrible blank space where the writing needs to be.

Research takes longer than writing which takes longer than editing which takes longer than proof reading
Planning belongs in the early stages of the Writing Cycle. 
by Katherine Firth

I am definitely against bullet points and numbered lists for planning complex academic writing, because they simultaneously

  • create the illusion of order
  • simply by having things sitting one after the other on a page when you jotted them down
  • regardless of logic, argument or anything else.
  • People have lots of points
  • quotes
  • things to include
  • that don’t necessarily build together into a logical argument.
  • Moreover, the point of a list is that white gap between lines
  • the point of academic writing is to write those lines.
  • A list therefore gives you no help in doing the writing.

I am a fan of narrative plans though. Usually, for me, that just means sitting down with a pen and paper (always lined paper, sometimes pencil, always longhand) and writing out the story of my thesis / project / chapter. This is really useful for clarifying an argument and a through-line for your writing. It also happens in full prose sentences, so can be a really useful way to work out how you want to talk about something, what words, phrases and terms work for your thesis.

Often I suggest people start a Thesis Boot Camp or other writing intensive in this way with a free-written narrative.

  1. Open a new, untouched document or a fresh notepad page.
  2.  Set a timer for 10 minutes.
  3. Free write the story of your thesis.
    1. Alternatively free write about the problems you are currently trying to solve.
  4. When the timer goes off, review what you have written. Often the first 3-4 minutes worth of work are total garbage and should be deleted. However, the remaining 6-7 minutes worth of writing is often an abstract, introduction, conclusion paragraph, or plan.

It’s not that I don’t plan what I write thereafter, it’s just that I do it in my head with the argument foremost. However, this doesn’t work for everyone. Some people are then able to go on writing something that flows beautifully out of the narrative plan. Other people find that they like more structure written down on the page. I really struggled to find something that worked, that gave the structure and security of a detailed plan, but that actually facilitated writing and that foregrounded the argument rather than a list of points.

Until I started researching creative writing outlines, that is. Novelists have this problem all the time, and there are lots of great (and many terrible) resources out there. Here is one I’ve been playing with, amended to work for academic writing. I’ve written this up for Literature PhDs (as that is my discipline). Please amend ‘text’ for whatever it is you are researching: ‘experiment, case study, field trip, social group, piece of technology, etc’.

How to write a narrative outline for each chapter. 

For each chapter:
1. Write your text’s name and any really important features we need to know about it
2. What is the goal of the text, what is it trying to do? (In a situation where your critical goal and the goal of the thing you are studying are not identical).
3. What critic or critical lens will enable you to critique or analyse this text? how does the lens challenge or push the text in new ways?
What antagonist texts are you dealing with? (These are people who you position your work against, see Building your Thesis on the Corpses of Your Enemies).
What ally or supportive text comes alongside your reading to help open it up in new ways?
4. End: What is the conclusion that you want this chapter to acheive? Is it a clear, closed conclusion, or an open ended one?
5. Flaw: What is the thing that you need to resolve through that chapter. Is the text understudied, not canonical, shocking, badly written etc.
6. Theme: What is the overall theme of the thesis that will carry throughout the chapters?

7. Plan:
Opening—how will we enter the chapter? (Anecdote, quote, big claim, what happened next etc.).
Introduce the text in its context.
What is the text’s goal?
What is the thing you need to resolve in the chapter for your argument to work?
What is your goal? How will you get there?
Discuss the critic’s texts.
Deal with the problem raised by the critic.
Discuss your antagonist texts.
Deal with the problem raised by the antagonist.
Discuss your ally texts, what is opened up by these texts? (These are people whose work you essentially agree with, who help take your work forward).
Deal with the new insights raised by the ally texts.
Move towards the End.
Achieve the End.
Restate that in the context of the overall theme.

(I stole this from Libbie Hawker’s Take of Your Pants: Outline your Books for Faster, Better Writing and then adjusted it for academic writing).

In a future post, I’ll talk about argument mapping and visual planning, which I’m also a fan of!

I’m trying this out, and so are a couple of other beta testers. If you are facing a chapter that needs planning, or need to produce an outline for your Confirmation or Review, why not give this a go? Let me know how it works for you!


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


Related Posts

Between the paragraph and the word is the ‘line edit’

There is another intermediate stage of editing, which is typically called ‘line edits’ in creative writing. This is the edit that is all about style and grace, about flow, about clarity and voice. In other words, this the edit that is absolutely not essential and many academic writers don’t bother with it. It’s a ‘nice to have’, a cherry on the cake, which is why I haven’t written about it before.

Read More

Getting back into the swing of this

The book is now in with the series editor and going out to reviewers (2 weeks late, but also 2 weeks before the deadline I had written on my otherwise trusty whiteboard… a story for a later post!!). So in this little writing block I had in my day—too small for getting back into another big project—I thought I’d warm up the blog machine.

Read More

Five finger exercises for academic writing

If you have ever learned the piano, you may have had to do ‘five finger exercises’—little pieces that are less about their musical value, and more about making you use all five fingers on your hands, to improve your technique. They are warm-ups, strengthening and skill-building exercises. They are part of the invisible part of performing music—I have never seen a concert performance of these exercises, but I’m also certain that every concert pianist I have ever paid to listen to, has done hours and hours of them in their time.

Read More

Get the latest blog posts