When I started planning for the A to Z Challenge, I hadn’t planned to do a trilogy, but Notes, Outline and Plan, as well as being alphabetically congruent form a pleasing balanced set, with three different themes, linked with an overall preparedness – and as the saying goes, Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. Before we get too embroiled in my own thoughts on Plans, I’d like to share two aphorisms which I took on board a long time ago, and which I hope you will find of use as well.
The first betrays its military heritage in its language, but it is relevant in all sorts of situations: A plan never survives first contact with the enemy.
The second I think probably also came from a military source, but less overtly so: A plan is only as good as its ability to adapt.
To some extent, these two go hand in hand – whilst your plan might not survive first contact, if it (or you) are flexible then the core of it will be retained and you will succeed. To continue with the military metaphor, there are many potential enemies, both perceived and real, but I’d like to suggest that your writing is itself the enemy to be considered in this instance – we’ll come back to that in a minute. Another useful phrase that I came across recently in a military influenced management setting was “commander’s intent”. The commander’s intent is the ultimate measure of success, no matter what the path taken. There is some objective, and in the field, with lack of contact with HQ, the person on the ground has to make decisions about what needs to be done. You, the researcher, the writer, the candidate have several roles, not all of whom are going to be paying attention to each other as you move forward. But actually the commander’s intent is pretty straight forward – write a thesis. Present a set of arguments that are defensible that support a particular answer to a research question. How you get there is, to some extent, flexible.
Way back at E I talked about Editing, and I suggested that this was a third of the process, with one third being actually getting the words down on paper and one third planning and preparing. From this, we can see how important a plan is to the writing process, and how important it is to get it right. So what did I mean about the writing itself being the enemy? Well, writing is, or can be, a very organic process. There are lots of ways that data can be presented and this can influence how it is interpreted. The very act of writing a thought down can lead to one thought or another being prompted to follow it. Or perhaps both come to mind at the same time and you have to choose which one will take precedence. Making a mistake as you type and going back to correct it can mean you lose your train of thought. So when you come to write up the work that you planned, you may find that the plan no longer works. But if you have a plan, and you’ve captured all the key information that you need, then you can always review, edit, indulge in some paragraph replanning and you should come through to achieve the commander’s intent.
As I write this, I’ve had almost identical conversations with two different students on how to begin this process, so it’s quite fresh in my mind. Begin with the chapter headings, and as I’ve said, before, try and make them informative in themselves, begin managing reader’s expectations right from this point. Then start with the key sections that will come within the chapter. Sometimes this will be enough, but at others, you will need to break these sections down further. Think about the logical flow of the story.
This isn’t quite what I’d imagined I’d be writing when I began to plan this post, but I think that I’ve achieved commander’s intent: I love it when a plan comes together…