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Specifying the end: Project management as applied to writing

Is project management really an essential writing process? While academic authors certainly recognize that writing requires many unique processes, each deserving attention, we rarely think beyond research, drafting, and revision. Yet, how well we manage projects can make or break the outcome. Case in point, if you miss the deadline for a special issue, it hardly matters how well your paper was aligned with the editor’s vision! Even when outcomes are not so dire, project management allows you to work in a calmer and less reactive manner, thus allowing for greater creativity.
Within formal project management, the tools can be roughly broken into “project definition tools” and “implementation tools.” In general, project definition tools are procedures that help you determine the scope, the tasks, the time frame, and the budget (i.e., time). Implementation tools are those that help you work smoothly. Here I focus on the former.

Clearly defining the project should be accomplished before the actual writing begins, because if you need to make adjustments, at the starting point, you have many more degrees of freedom. For example, if you have committed to a grant application due in two months’ time and in week one you realize that what you have planned will take 120 working hours, but you only have 64 hours available, you have to face an uncomfortable truth. At this early point, however, it is still a recoverable situation. You can either reduce the scope or get more resources.  Conversely, if you recognized this disparity in month two, there is little that can be done without scrapping the application, vastly lowering standards, or sacrificing your sleep – all bad outcomes!

One of the most essential project definition tools is establishing the “end project specifications”, in other words, exactly what does this writing project need to meet your goals? This is a surprisingly difficult process, and as writers, we often assume that goal setting is sufficient. But as you start your next project, I urge you work past goal statements, to objectives and finally into end project specifications. Furthermore, write these out formally! That way, when you need to make a decision about the paper (e.g., we need to cut 500 words, but from where?), you can consult your specifications and strategically arrive at an answer.

Some basic questions to ask for writing an objective include:

  • What is the purpose?
  • Why is it important?
  • Who will be the readers of this piece?
  • What will writing this accomplish?
  • If empirical, what data and research methods will be used?
  • Where will it be published?
  • When should this writing project be done?

Then to move on to the specifications, simply take each unique aspect of the objective and ask: Exactly what would that look like? Or How can we accomplish that?

I’ll use a recent paper to illustrate.  Here was our goal:

Goal: Analyze gender differences in student’s literacy skills at school entry, at Grades 1 and 2, and analyze if gender differences reduced or expanded after school instruction.

When my co-authors and I first met, we defined this as our next project and I volunteered to take the lead. At the closure of our meeting, we felt pretty confident; but when I sat down to plan what to do next, I was paralyzed. Too many decisions had been left undecided. This led to another meeting, more discussions, and my ability to compose a more specific objective:

Objective: By February 1, using longitudinal reading scores data, submit a paper to Journal of Educational Psychology documenting gender differences at School Entry, and End of Grade 1 & End of Grade 2. Use growth curve models to analyze how initial gender differences changed after the onset of instruction. Present findings in a manner that teachers and administrators can judge the extent that the gender differences are meaningful.

As you can see, in the objective, we now have defined where we aim to submit it. That important choice influenced a number of decisions such as style, audience, word limits, and expectations for the literature review. We also defined exactly what analysis should be used.  When we did this, we recognized a very important oversight—no  one on our current team had this skill set! So, we needed to expand our team.  We also defined that we had more than one reader in mind. We needed (of course) to meet the reviewers’ and editor’s standards, but we ultimately wanted to write the findings in a manner that we could communicate to parents and teachers.

Moreover, although the objective writing process was very useful, this was still not a fully specified idea. We still needed to operationalize our stated objectives – the End Product Specifications.

For example, when we said that we need to present the findings in an interpretable manner for teachers and administrators, we had to figure out how this would look. This discussion led to two specifications (the first was obvious, the second took us some time): 1) Create a figure to visually depict the growth curve models of the boys and girls so readers can easily see the trends, even if they don’t understand the statistical details. 2) Translate the genders difference scores into “months of learning”.

To further explain point two, our results showed that girls were scoring approximately five points higher on a global literacy assessment at school entry, but this information is not meaningful beyond researchers in the field. Therefore, we decided that based on the average growth rate, we could translate those five points to “months of learning.” Using that information, we could then communicate to practitioners the size of the gap: It would take approximately two and half months of instruction for the boys to catch up with the girls.

In total, defining these goals, objectives, and end product specifications early in the process, allowed us to work through the hard decisions and assemble the resources that we needed. After that, the writing process became relatively smooth and predictable. We were able to minimize meetings and I could readily define and delegate the tasks. Ultimately, we met our timeline and published our paper, but it was the harmony and steadiness of the process, of which we were most grateful!

Erin McTigue

After being a tenured professor at Texas A&M University, Erin McTigue started her own business, The Positive Academic, through which she mentors and coaches academics in writing and productivity. Erin also presents a variety of virtual workshops for TAA on academic writing and productivity.