Turning ideas into text

ideas into textDuring our May 29th #AcWriChat TweetChat event on Twitter, we discussed how academic writers turn ideas into text. Specifically, we considered how ideas are generated, ways to use freewriting to generate ideas, methods for prioritizing ideas and project tasks, strategies for writing the first draft and ways that the draft can help refine the idea.

Below is a summary of the ideas shared during the discussion.

Idea generation

The first step in turning ideas into text that becomes published academic work is generating the ideas. Our discussion, therefore, began with questions of how ideas are generated and ways that freewriting can help in the process.

The act of idea generation is what many refer to as prewriting. The University of Wisconsin – Madison notes that “While there is no set formula for generating ideas for your writing, there is a wide range of established techniques that can help you get started.” Further, they provide a substantial list of techniques in their Writer’s Handbook online resource.

Event participant Danielle Apfelbaum said, “I usually start with things I have a gut feeling about but need to investigate further to gather hard data on the issue. Sometimes I generate ideas from problems I need to solve in my everyday work.” She added, “I keep a running list of future topics I’d like to investigate as well. Sometimes I get an idea when I’m in a meeting. Sometimes, while I’m reading. I throw the ideas in my planner and pop them into a Google doc at the end of the quarter to refer to later.”

Marc Ouellette shared that his approach is “all about the patterns.” According to him, “writing is part of solving the problem.” As he writes and insights arrive, “they go in the margins”.

Sonal Mehta takes a more formal approach to generating ideas for academic work. She said, Considering Bloom’s taxonomy helps in framing right set of papers”. Addressing our question on how freewriting can help generate ideas, she adds that it “opens you up as an author and let your original ideas come out.”

An online resource from Aims Community College states, Too often, writers get self-conscious about writing and want everything to be perfect the first time. The practice of freewriting eliminates these obstacles and allows a writer to generate creativity.”

For Apfelbaum, freewriting is essential to her productivity. “It helps me hone in on and articulate clearly what it is I’m interested in writing about and how I’m going to tackle the writing process”, she added.

MIT describes freewriting as “similar to brainstorming but written in sentence and paragraph form without stopping.” Continuing, they state that “it increases the flow of ideas and reduces the chance that you’ll accidentally censor a good idea.” In her blog article, “Ten Reasons to Practice Freewriting”, Cheryl Reif claims that “freewriting can help you grow as a writer”.  

Prioritizing ideas and tasks

Now that you have all of these fresh ideas, we wanted to know how authors prioritize them for actual writing. When determining which idea to work on first, Carole Bozworth at the University of Missouri writes, “Setting priorities is a matter of deciding what is really important. In this case ‘important’ means important to you.”

Apfelbaum shared that importance may not be the only factor. Another consideration for prioritizing ideas for her is feasibility. She adds, “Sometimes you have an idea, but there isn’t yet a sufficient amount of existing literature to support your project. Other times, you just don’t have the resources to undertake a specific project given its parameters.”

Whether from a perspective of importance or feasibility, our next question for chat participants was, “Once you have selected an idea to focus on, how do you organize the project tasks?”

According to Tara Horkoff in her open textbook, Writing for Success 1st Canadian Edition, “writers need a thesis statement to provide a specific focus for their essay and to organize what they are about to discuss in the body.” During the discussion, Ouellette suggested refining your thoughts into the thesis as follows: “write your point in 5 sentences. Then 3. Then 1.” He also advised using an annotated table of contents as an alternative to annotated bibliographies that he finds “useless”.

Participant D Knowles Ball commented, “This is an excellent technique! I recently did one where you have to capture your research in one paragraph using only monosyllabic words. It really helped melt down the important points and focus for me.” Maria Plochocki added, “Yes: scaling down is much harder than many realise.”

According to a MindTools article on planning the timing and sequence of project activities, “Project managers have a variety of tools to develop a project schedule – from the relatively simple process of action planning for small projects, to use of Gantt Charts and Network Analysis for large projects.” Mehta noted that she uses “content mapping with ideas and using a project management tool to stay organized”. When asked which tools she uses, she identified Trello and Orangescrum as best, but also noted using Google Sheets.

Apfelbaum shared her thoughts on organizing project tasks as dependent but uses outlining to frame the process. “I think it depends on your system. I scope the literature, create a preliminary outline, then begin collecting the literature relevant to the outline. I try to schedule reading and note-taking every day once the project has a shape to it.”

Brandon Ramey of Herzing University shared the following five steps to a strong outline:

  1. Choose Your Topic and Establish Your Purpose
  2. Create A List Of Main Ideas
  3. Organize Your Main Ideas
  4. Flush Out Your Main Points
  5. Review and Adjust

Preparing the draft

With ideas and plan in hand, we turned our attention to the actual preparation of the first draft – turning the ideas into text. According to the open textbook, Writing for Success, “keeping your purpose and your audience at the front of your mind is the most important key to writing success”.

The outline and prewriting work is the core of the draft for Mehta who identified her strategies for success as follows: “Deep research, preparation of content skeleton (structure), decide flow with heads, subheads, and start writing. Then proof read and finalize”.

EAP Foundation notes that As you write your initial draft, you should try to follow your outline as closely as possible. Writing, however, is a continuous, creative process and as you are writing you may think of new ideas”. Claiming that “a good first draft is a finished 1st draft”, Ouellette shared that he writes everything by hand, so the typing is his first edit. He said, “don’t be fixed on where things go. Be ready & willing to move things.”

Apfelbaum echoes the need for flexibility in the draft. “I give myself permission to over-write in the first draft. Revising and cutting down is much easier for me than having to go back and add in more evidence/details/etc.” According to the UNC Writing Center, “Revision literally means to ‘see again,’ to look at something from a fresh, critical perspective. It is an ongoing process of rethinking the paper”.

The University of Maryland University College Online Guide to Writing and Research states that As you begin your first draft, you will find yourself cycling through four basic activities: 1) interpreting your notes and research materials, 2) organizing your ideas, 3) refining your thesis, 4) revising your draft”.

Although the revision process may refine the original idea or thesis, it is important to continue revisiting the purpose and audience driving the project. Mehta stated that “too much of revisiting first draft might result in altogether diverted content for me”. Keep your focus on the project at hand.

Of course, all drafts have room for improvement, so you may want to consider these 23 ways to improve your draft from the Writing Center at George Mason University in working on yours.

We encourage you to join us on Twitter this Friday, June 12th for our next #AcWriChat event where we’ll be discussing revision and editing strategies.


Eric Schmieder

Eric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, MySQL, and PHP, First Edition, is available now through Sentia Publishing.