Breaking Down Writing Projects into Smaller Parts
Looking at Everest from Basecamp
I was recently talking with some graduate students, and one of them mentioned that starting a dissertation felt like standing at base camp and looking up at Everest. Where do you even begin? The view from the bottom is intimidating, and it's difficult to know where to start.
The key to starting any massive task is to divide it into smaller sections so that you are not tackling the entire mountain at once. The summit is the goal, but it is not the focus from moment to moment. Everyone who climbs Everest has a strategy for each stage of the journey, as well as a plan for where they will camp each evening. You must take it one day at a time, one challenge at a time, and divide your main goals into smaller ones that can be accomplished on the way to the summit.
Any writing project, including dissertations, books, journal articles, and grant or fellowship applications, can be broken down into smaller sections or tasks to help you reach the summit without becoming overwhelmed. I'll demonstrate how I do this with journal articles, but you can do it with almost any writing project. I'd also recommend reading this article fromat Academia Made Easier, who wrote about creating a targeted outline in her newsletter last week. Her article made me consider my own method for breaking down writing into smaller tasks.
Step 1: Familiarize Yourself with Models
Academic disciplines have established conventions for the types of sections that should be included in journal articles, as well as the length of those sections. Journal articles in my field, for example, are typically between 6,000 and 10,000 words long, with the average falling somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000. The various sections can vary depending on the topic, and we have some leeway in the section structure. In the social sciences, the format is more standardized, with sections such as literature review, methodology, results, discussion, and conclusion.
I recommend finding several articles in your field and in the journals you want to publish in to serve as models for your own work. Outline what each section does and how the writing is organized so that you know what each section should do for your article.
While I’m focusing on journal articles for this piece, you can do the same thing with other genres of writing. You can outline how someone structures a book or a book chapter into smaller sections. Your dissertation is a collection of chapters for which you can find models. The primary goal at this stage is to comprehend the genre and how the manuscript is composed of smaller sections.
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Step 2: Outline Your Project with Word Counts
The next step in breaking my journal article into smaller parts is to think about the word counts for each of the sections of my manuscript. I usually include a word count estimate for each section in my outline, which looks like this for a 7K-word article:
Introduction: 500 words
Literature Review: 700 words
Methodology: 500 words
Body Section 1: 1500 words
Body Section 2: 1500 words
Body section 3: 1000 words
Conclusion: 500 words
Citations: 800 words
Because my field is humanistic media studies, there are numerous ways to structure an article. Formal literature reviews or methodology sections are not always required for articles, and the literature can be interspersed throughout the piece. I decide how to structure articles based on the journal I'm aiming for and what I believe the piece requires for the argument.
Let’s say you don’t normally use an outline with your first draft of writing. This method may still be useful to you during the revision stage. You can figure out how to fit what you've written into your field's conventions and the word counts that your models require. You can then revise your first draft to fit the model structure and available word counts.
Step 3: Determine Which Sections To Work on When
After you've divided the manuscript into smaller sections with estimated word counts, you can decide which section to tackle first. Thinking of a section as 700 or even 1500 words is much less intimidating than thinking about the entire project. You can write a draft of that word count in a reasonable amount of time and feel satisfied that you accomplished a mini-goal on your way to the summit.
Breaking the project down into smaller chunks can also help with time management. Setting a goal of writing 800 words in one session is an achievable and time-bound SMART goal. Having measurable goals that you complete in a specific amount of time can go a long way toward moving the needle forward.
You don't get from base camp to Everest in a single day. You must take it one step at a time, setting mini-goals along the way.
We’d Like to Hear From You
How do you divide your projects into manageable chunks? How do you keep big goals from becoming overwhelming? What are your thoughts or questions on the process I've described above?