Tag Archives: process

As a writing consultant, I try to help my clients understand their own writing habits and behaviors. I ask them questions about how they go about planning, writing, and revising. If they know about the writing process in general and understand their own habits and behaviors, they may be better able to reaffirm or improve the latter. In contrast, if they don’t know and have problems, they’re more likely to think that this is just the way they work. Learning about alternatives can inspire writers to experiment with new tools and strategies.

When clients reflect on how they manage the different phases of the writing process, they might find out which strategies work for them. We find different typologies of writers and their work habits in writing research and consulting literature. The typologies are often derived from empirical research and therefore do not always cover every possibility. Some of them work with metaphors of the types of writers, such as “the architect”, “the drawer”, or “the oil painter”. Others refer to them in terms of “the writer of versions”, “the editor”, “the spontaneous” and so on. The typologies I’ve seen range from five to ten strategies. Because the term “writing type” might suggest a fixed or unalterable way of writing, I prefer to use the term “writing strategies”. While I follow a strategy, I can still try other strategies should it not work. The knowledge of the variety of writing strategies and the option of changing and experimenting with them, thus, forms an important tool for consulting struggling writers.

Far from telling clients how they should work and how they should best change their work pattern, I want to give them the opportunity to find out for themselves. They all have their individual work and writing strategies that may or may not fit one of the typologies. The goal isn’t to fit into a predetermined strategy, but rather to see one’s individual behaviors and habits. They may well combine different strategies, depending on the writing context.

In my case, for example, I usually think about what I want to write here in my blog and sometimes make some short notes. At the writing session, I just sit down and start to write, revising the text afterwards or later in the day. If I work on a bigger project, I plan the different stages in the process. I also think more about the structure of the text in advance, making a preliminary outline, even if I know that I will alter it at least once more after completing the first draft. Only after the first draft do I start to revise. If I try to come up with ideas for a new project, I write to find out what I know and what I have to say about a topic – without a plan, structure, or any other “scaffolding”. However, I try to omit writing and revising at the same time, because it slows down my writing and would very likely stir my inner censor. What I’ve never done so far is to write different versions of the same text, so that I can choose one of them for the further work. During my studies, I tried to think a text through and then write it down – a strategy that never worked for me, because I ended up doing everything at the same time, anxious of the impending deadline.

Writers who think that they have one strategy that fits all writing contexts might profit from knowing about other strategies. Maybe that one strategy works for them. In this case, I won’t try to convince them of other strategies. But if they struggle with their usual strategy – and that’s when they likely seek help from me – we try to discover how else they could work. There’s no need for them to be blocked just because they think that their way of working is the only way, without knowing consciously what it consists of.

Similar to the decisions writers make in their texts – about voice, reader orientation, argument and so on –, they also need to make decisions before and during the writing process. In other words: if you don’t know what you do or how, you won’t know how to improve the process if you get stuck. So, in the long run it might be worth investing into ‘prevention’ than into trouble-shooting. Deliberately choosing writing strategies will help do so.

Next week, I will start a new post series. I will talk about different writing exercises that may help to initiate the process or its reflection.


Although I’m new to the business of consulting students and scholars, I’ve already learned a lot on the job as well as by reading about it. Now I would like to talk about the work a writing consultant does and what clients may expect. No doubt, there are different approaches of how to do the job. One I would like to discuss seems to be widespread and well documented (for those who read German, I can recommend the recently published Zukunftsmodell Schreibberatung by E. Grieshammer et al.).

The basic principle I try to apply in my work is that of helping academic writers to help themselves. As I learned, I should not just try to tell a client what she should do about a writing problem. Rather, I should let her find a solution herself by supporting her learning process. This is easier said than done. I see at least two challenges in this: first, my eagerness to help solve problems may become a problem itself, because the client won’t learn how to tackle a challenge in the future, but will instead get a quick fix from me. Second, the client who expects me to just help him with the present challenge so that he can continue to work without having to learn something new. Both undermine the main principle. I won’t say that quick fixes don’t have their rightful place, but they should be the exception.

The principle of help for self-help connects to other aspects of writing consultancy. Although I don’t reject clients who like to talk about their text – the final product – I’m more concerned with the writing process. How do they plan their writing, how do they manage their time, how do they structure the process of creating a text, and how do they cope with setbacks and other challenges? While I too often intervene in a text because I happen to see something they could or should change, this isn’t my job as a consultant. Rather, together with the clients, my job is to find adequate tools and strategies to support their writing process. If they want me to look at the text in regard to style, for example, we will do so together with the help of examples. But here too, it should be the client who decides about the stylistic changes. I’m only a facilitator who helps the client to discover his or her own resources. With this approach, the clients are more likely to find a solution the next time the challenge arises, without needing my help. In the end, they are responsible for their writing and have to be able to defend their decisions. If the decisions and changes come from the writing consultant, the writer might get into trouble.

Whenever I suggest a strategy or change, I try to make clear that it is my suggestion. While this might be tedious to hear time and again, it remains important for me as a consultant. I can suggest many things that would work for me. It’s easy to do so, because I won’t be writing or revising the text myself. Suggestions, then, have the function to initiate or provoke thoughts and decisions. They’re not necessarily the right ones. That is why I tell my clients that they have to decide themselves. But whatever they do, it’s central that they know what they’re doing and why.

The consulting context, thus, depends equally on the consultant’s as well as the client’s orientation and expectations. Until now, I have not yet experienced any clash of expectations that would have prevented my work with clients. But I have to be as transparent as possible when it comes to disclosing my work principles and expectations.

Next week, I will talk about how clients can profit from knowing how they write.

“If you start writing early in your research – before you have all your data,
for instance – you can begin cleaning up your thinking sooner.”
(Howard S. Becker 2007 (1986): Writing for Social Scientists. p. 17-18)

It is never too early to begin to write a text. I refer not only to note taking, writing excerpts of books and articles, transcribing and coding data, and similar prewriting tasks. To write early means to engage your thoughts from the start. People who wait until they have thought through their entire project, or who have found the perfect first sentence and then start to “write it up”, miss a valuable chance. I’ve been one of those people and I know how stressful it is when the deadline approaches and your project is still existing mainly in your head.

Beginning to write early has at least three advantages over waiting for too long. First, an early start allows you to use writing as a tool for thinking. While you might be able to think through a short paper, it gets more difficult and complex the longer the text you’re working on is. Instead of trying to keep everything in your head and not loosing the control over its order, you can write down what you know at every stage of your project. When you use writing as a thinking tool, you are free to write whatever comes to mind. When you do this, you not only discover what you think about your topic, but you will also see if your ideas work on paper. A side effect of regularly writing down what you’re thinking about, is getting new ideas.

Maybe you think that writing in this way wastes time because it’s not “real” writing. Even if it’s not, as a second advantage, it gives you a basis for writing the final text. You don’t have to start from scratch because you have rich material to work with. Maybe you can even use some of your notes and need only revise them.

The third advantage of writing early in the process is that you get used to writing. It allows you to establish a habit of writing regularly. Imagine that you didn’t begin to write early and, due to the impending deadline, you need to start writing. If you’re not yet used to sitting down every day, this is going to be a rough start. So while you’re writing from the beginning of your project, you can establish a regular writing habit at the same time.

No doubt, beginning to write early, before you feel ready – as Robert Boice suggests in Advice for New Faculty Members (2000, chap. 10) – might take courage. Don’t worry about whether the things you are writing are the final text or just notes, or whether you can use them or will throw them away. Just write down that which you know, which you don’t know, and which you think you should know. Use writing as a tool for thinking and developing your writing skills.

Next week, I want to talk about dedication to ones writing. I guess I will find out what I think, when I write about it.

During the first two years of my PhD I wrote different versions of my disposition, several papers for PhD courses, and a few preliminary pages of my theory and methods chapters. I waited with writing regularly because I didn’t yet know my main thesis and the structure with which to present it. Although I worked with my research data on a daily basis, I didn’t write about them much. I waited until I knew how to approach them. I mainly thought about my thesis instead of writing about it.

If you know this problem, you might wonder how to deal with it. I work with PhD students who encounter the challenge of finding their thesis and structure. They have all their data and have read everything they need to know about their topic, yet they are stuck with the question “Now what?” Despite having known what they wanted to do in the beginning of their PhD, now it seems that there is too much to do or that it’s not original enough. In this situation I try to help them get started, because the best way to deal with this situation is to write. I suggest that they use writing as a tool for thinking. Until now, they have mostly thought about their topic or written texts for other purposes such as conferences, courses, or grants. What they face at this point is a bigger picture of presenting their findings. While writing a PhD thesis may sound overwhelming, we should not forget that the thesis consists of many small tasks and parts. The goal is to assemble them in the right sequence. This will make the job less frightening.

In the following post, I suggest a sequence of tasks that allows PhD students to find their main thesis and a structure. This approach breaks down the task of finding one’s thesis and structure into smaller and more manageable parts. And if the smaller tasks still seem too big to be manageable, we can break them down again into even smaller bits (e.g. portions for each writing session).

In order to find your thesis, you must first know the discussions to which you want to contribute. The literature review allows you to see what has been done so far and what kind of problems and questions are discussed. Whether in a single chapter or distributed throughout your thesis, eventually you have to show that you know the literature concerned with your topic and in which way your thesis will contribute to the discussions. That is why a preliminary literature review is a good starting point to learn more about your own perspective. For the time being, however, you can write about the literature for yourself. That means, you can write it in a conversational tone or even as a dialogue, if you like. The goal of this first step is to find out for yourself how you want to connect to the literature. You don’t have to write the perfect draft yet. Consider this step to be an intellectual playground, where you are free to experiment with concepts and perspectives.

The literature review should lead you to find out what your contribution will be. This is why you need to read and write about the literature critically. You have to find a niche or crack in the discussions, something your PhD thesis can connect to. To contribute to a field of knowledge means to help develop it further, whether with a new concept, new perspective, or new research findings (or all of the above).

If you know your contribution, you have to figure out how to phrase it in the form of a thesis. A thesis is a claim that you will present and defend with your discussions and analyses. It is an answer to the questions you want to contribute to. In my PhD thesis I raised the question of how we can conceptualize the relationship between economy and art as social phenomena. This is a question that authors from several disciplines have answered in different ways. Since I wanted to contribute to the understanding of this relationship, I suggested a new approach and presented it with an analysis of a specific social phenomenon.

As soon as you know your thesis, you have to figure out how to present the findings that support your claim. While you can always stick to the tried and true (introduction, theory, methods, results, discussion, conclusion), it will be more interesting for yourself and your readers if you find your own way. You can ask yourself the question, what kind of story do you want to tell with your PhD thesis? You need to unfold your argument to make it intelligible. There are many ways to do that. It may help you to tell someone else about your thesis; someone who is not yet familiar with it. The way you explain your work to this person may give you some hints about how to tell your story or not (the sequence of the arguments, the information your readers need etc.). If you know how to tell the story, you can make a draft of the thesis’ structure. While you can still modify it, you now have a basis you can work with.

When you know the literature (and thus your audience), your contribution to the literature, your main thesis, and the way to write about it, you can start to write. At best, you already have dozens of pages about the literature, your contribution and thesis, and maybe first drafts of analyses. You can now work with this material and fill in the chapters. If you are stuck in a chapter, as I was several times, think again about what you want to say with it and how it contributes to your overall thesis. While writing you will find out whether your plans work out or not. You can still change the sequence or even contents of the chapters. However, in the end, each chapter needs to contribute to your thesis. Everything superfluous has to go.

The different tasks do not necessarily follow each other in this linear sequence. You could jump back and forth, as I did. It may help you to understand the different tasks that are involved in constructing your thesis. Perhaps it will help you to break down the process into smaller and more manageable parts. Remember, nobody writes a thesis from start to finish in one go. One of the main learning effects of doing a PhD is to learn how to do it. For me, it is more about the process than the product. The earlier you start with this process, the more time you get to experiment with, change, and improve your ideas and prose.

Next week, I talk more about the options for structuring a thesis.

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