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Knowing How to Begin: Navigating Abstract Goals

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

In "Make Your Structure Sound," a crucial step in the constructive planning process, I introduced six strategies that can be used in conjunction with a goal network. This stage is very self-reflective and, depending on the nature of this reflection, can determine the direction taken when translating the plan into text. I've introduced some methods of doing this, or rather, methods that might make this transition less daunting.

One of those methods is to begin in the middle or "body" of your piece rather than at the beginning. Another is to draft some of the text and evaluate it alongside the goals and plans developed thus far. From there, it's best to reflect on whether the text that has been written aligns with the developed goals, whether those goals need to be adjusted, and whether the text produced is appropriate to the writing task. Both of these strategies can work together effectively.

While this might be the extent of what a writer may need, "Planning in Writing" correctly points out that the transition from plan to text "may involve feats such as translating a nonverbal representation of knowledge into a verbal one, turning experiential, episodic knowledge into semantic form, or taking on the linguistic constraints of standard written English" (Flower et al, 1989). This means that, while goals should ideally be abstract and the idea of goal integration can clarify them, this step doesn't always fully do the work of making those goals less abstract. What we're looking for is goal instantiation.

As an aside, those who are programmers might recognize the term, "instantiation." It's used similarly in this case, but applies to clarification in writing, to represent something that's abstract by using something more concrete.

Use Code Words or Key Words

One strategy that can be used to instantiate goals is to use certain terms as pointers to the developed topic knowledge. Ideally, along with a plan for the given writing tasks, there is research or there are reference texts. Even fiction can make use of that. For example, a science fiction writer might turn to Octavia Butler if they want to estrange or reveal a "hidden truth" about a very nature-based community or environment.

Here is an excerpt from The Wild Seed, a personal favorite:

"Anyanwu’s ears and eyes were far sharper than those of other people. She had increased their sensitivity deliberately after the first time men came stalking her, their machetes ready, their intentions clear. She had had to kill seven times on that terrible day — seven frightened men who could have been spared—and she had nearly died herself, all because she let people come upon her unnoticed. Never again.

Now, for instance, she was very much aware of the lone intruder who prowled the bush near her. He kept himself hidden, moved toward her like smoke, but she heard him, followed him with her ears" (Butler, 1980).

If a writer's goal is an estranged natural environment and they turned to this text, they might notice first that Anyanwu purposefully modified her senses for her own protection. It might not be essential for a character to have modified senses, but "modified senses" could be an effective term to use. We need to consider the question of what there is to estrange.

Next, there is a conflict, stakes, Anyanwu's life is in danger, but so are those who would do her her harm. Because there is an estrangement, there is a price for that estrangement. This is how attaching a term of some kind to an abstract goal helps to unlock a further body of knowledge. If there is an estrangement to be had, the way the literary world works is affected.

In a scholarly piece of writing, on the other hand, having a discourse to work in is usually a given. For someone who is tracing, for example, the trajectory of specific tropes that Octavia Butler uses, they might turn to other articles that do something similar.

The following is the first few lines from "Symbiotic Bodies and Evolutionary Tropes in the Work of Octavia Butler:"

"The tropes of the parasite, the host, and the symbiont figure prominently in Octavia Butler's science fiction, much of which is fundamentally engaged with survival and adaptation strategies in hostile environments. These strategies entail the understanding and assimilation of otherness, in both the physical and personal spheres, as well as the negotiation and incorporation of hybridity as integral to the maintenance of life" (Ferreira, 2010).

In this passage, I've underlined several terms, but I'd like to focus on both "otherness" and "hybridity." The idea of otherness and othering is one in which a dominant "in-group" constructs an "out-group," creating a full discourse revolving around a real or imagined difference. A "hybrid" is a cross between what's usually considered separate. These terms aren't necessarily the tropes themselves, but they serve as necessary components that assist in the understanding and analysis of those tropes.

So, a writer who is close-reading this text and indicating key terms might notice how they fall in line with different sets of tropes, so they might think through those terms in different ways. "Otherness" and "hybridity" happen to be key themes in Butler's writing, so they might take a second look at those of her novels they want to use for their study, noticing where these themes are most prominent. How does the "othering" manifest itself? What is it that is hindering hybridity if it is key to the maintenance of life? Is it solely otherness or are there other factors as well?

Plans that have this basis on key terms and pointers might help the writer to expand on their topic knowledge in highly productive ways, but this strategy doesn't always work. Sometimes, this strategy is too repetitive and only further abstracts the ideas. Granted, there are different ways to implement this strategy, but that doesn't make it universal. Writing is too ill-defined for that, and that means other options are necessary.

Create a How-To

In "Planning in Writing," these are referred to as "how-to elaborations." Sometimes, this can take place in the middle of a goal network. For those who are visual learners, it is recommended that this be put in close proximity to the plan or goal network. Ideally, these would be close enough to text to guide its production, but they should also be an abstract and flexible continuation of the plan.

In this case, the writer is elaborating on ideas of how to carry out the text. They might ask themselves questions or write out sentence templates that say something like "I want theory x to relate to theory y, and I know that [source] is proof of that because ___________." The key is that the writer should elaborate on ideas for specifically how to carry out goals and plans without directly doing so. Some people read this as operating "above" the level of the text itself.

The fiction writer who wants to estrange or reveal a "hidden truth" about something in nature might write down something like this as a part of their how-to elaboration:

"I want this book to be as believable as possible, but I want animals and humans to be able to empathize with plant life to some extent and to perform certain functions that are specific to plant life.

From this, I want animals and humans to gain a deeper understanding of how elements of life should coexist. So, there is a need for othering.

What elements of plant life survive in most conditions? Would a more poisonous plant as an antagonist be too contrived?"

This isn't the only way to implement this strategy, but it can be helpful to include open-ended questions, especially if a writer is making a how-to elaboration for the first time. A how-to elaboration can be a list of questions and answers. It can be a few lines of a draft and a reflection on those lines. It can be a longer explanation of the goals and why they were chosen as goals.

This strategy is intended to emphasize that the transition from the plan to the text isn't a transition from one type of knowledge to another. The end product, the text, should ideally be one instantiation of the writer's goals, but this is not the final step of constructive planning. This step will be covered in next week's article on conflict resolution.

Thank you again to all of my readers who have provided such excellent feedback, support, and consistent engagement. If you would like to sign in and become a member of the Purposeful Prose community, you will be able to like and comment as well. Let me know, as always, what writing tools I can further research and provide for you!


Butler, O. E. (1999). Wild seed. New York: Warner Books.

Ferreira, M. A. (2010). Symbiotic Bodies and Evolutionary Tropes in the Work of Octavia Butler. Science Fiction Studies, 401-415.

Flower, L. (1989). Planning in Writing: The Cognition of a Constructive Process. Technical Report No. 34.

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Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
Mar 05, 2021

Such useful information on working through structural issues. The methods outlined in this piece present some crucial alternatives that can ease the sometimes unwieldy/daunting writing process as well as to clarify goals. Nice job!!!

Replying to

Thank you so much! I know I don’t use the term, “writer’s block” a whole lot, but I see this part as being about that. No matter what planning process is used, the relationship between the plan and the product is [I think] where manifestations of writer’s block come from. Instead of being stuck, a writer can look at it in terms of how abstract their goal is. My foundational text is from 1989, and yet it’s hard to find this kind of information in the writing community today. I hope it’s helpful!

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