Putting a Name to It: Categories of Writing Planning

Updated: Apr 29, 2021


While not always effectively utilized, planning in writing can be a helpful tool for emerging writers and established writers regardless of the genre and form of writing being done. However, not all writers make use of the planning types that best suit them. A standard format of an outline can either be necessary to produce something well-written or can produce something that is too formulaic [among other possible consequences] than what is required of a given writing task. The discourse of planning is divided to the level that some actively discourage planning while others state that it’s nearly impossible to succeed without some level of planning. However, many have reached the consensus that all writers have their own methods of planning that work for them, and there is no single correct way to plan a written work.


Because I agree with this notion, it is my aim to expand it further. That is to say, if a writer wants to explore the options with regards to planning available to them, they should have access to tools with which they can choose or customize the planning strategy that works best for them. One of the most difficult parts of writing is starting. “Planning in Writing: The Cognition of a Constructive Process” provides three broad categories (not an exhaustive list) under which different planning strategies can be classified.


Schema-Driven


This is a popular term in neuroscience and psychology, but a good way to begin to understand it in terms of writing is to use Frederic C. Bartlett’s definition of “schema” from his book, Remembering. He defines schema as "an active organization of past reactions [or] experiences, which must always be supposed to be operating in any well-adapted organic response" (Bartlett, 1932). He explains that, when others recall ideas or events, they use their own perspective, their own terms, their own method of compartmentalizing that information in order to describe it.


Often taught in schools as an effective way to plan information in essays and often the only category discussed in writing planning, a schema-driven planning strategy suggests a script or template that the writer fills out. A well-structured script has the capacity to do a majority of the work for the writer, but by the same token, it can also limit them.


“Planning in Writing” stipulates that a schema-driven process can be successful should a writer already know the script that is most appropriate for their given writing task or if the schema is already presented as part of the writer’s task. This gets a little more complicated if the task is self-assigned. One tool that offers some solutions and templates is Evernote. I’ve linked specifically to an article on novels, though there are other options available.


A well-developed schema can offer a writer a means by which to clarify a thought process or an underlying meaning, can help a writer to visualize a consistent path of reasoning, and can act as a measure to hinder writer’s block. However, having a script in any form does not guarantee that the end product will be effective or that it will correlate fully with the task. For example, if a writing task calls for something that is highly expressive, having something akin to an academic outline or even a mind map can make something appear inauthentic when it’s fully written out.


In addition, though this may seem counterintuitive, an outline can lead a writer to detract from the primary path of their text. If the next piece of an outline for a fiction writer, for example, is to world build and describe a setting, an overabundance of a description can overwhelm the narrative. In that case, there wouldn’t be an effective balance of information between the narrative and the physical space that it takes place in. This could happen regardless of the planning involved, but it can become more of a possibility depending on the script.


Knowledge-Driven


A knowledge-driven strategy could require less pre-writing or a different form of pre-writing that, unlike schema-driven planning, doesn’t take place within the bounds of a script. Like a piece of writing that focuses on knowledge-telling as opposed to knowledge-transforming, a knowledge-driven piece relies on a writer’s “memory dump.”


A piece like this can be well-written and it can even be well-organized, but if the knowledge isn’t properly organized or does not apply to the writing task at hand, the piece of writing produced will not be effective. If a writing task is to compose an instructional manual on how to fix a car, then extensive topic knowledge on the history of motorized vehicles, while interesting, will not directly answer a question on how to fix a car.


For writers who prefer to take a knowledge-driven approach to their given piece of writing, it is important that they carefully review the task at hand and be able to directly answer the questions given through that task. A task or prompt may not directly contain a question, but an effective informative piece of writing will always answer some kind of question. So, a good step would be to pose and answer, in short form, the given question(s).


This is one way to determine whether topic knowledge will produce a piece of writing that works for a task. I will provide an example of a question that can pose as a writing task. Then, I will provide two passages. Select the passage that best answers the given question.


Why is there such a high quantity of food waste?


“A report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that the carbon footprint of food waste was 7% of all global emissions. A recent study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research showed that more than 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions are produced by agricultural activities. To waste so much food, then, is to needlessly contribute to climate change. Not to mention the resources we are squandering – 21% of all fresh water, 18% of cropland, and 19% of fertilizer – in the service of producing food that will only end up in the trash” (Move for Hunger, n.d.).

“Food spoilage, whether real or perceived, is one of the biggest reasons people throw out food. More than 80 percent of Americans discard perfectly good, consumable food simply because they misunderstand expiration labels. Labels like ‘sell by’, ‘use by’, ‘expires on’, ‘best before’ or ‘best by’ are confusing to people — and in an effort to not risk the potential of a foodborne illness, they’ll just toss it in the garbage” (RTS, 2021).


Both passages are interesting and well-written. The first presents viable statistics and a very persuasive argument on why not to waste food, but does it answer the question as to why there is such a high quantity of food waste? The second presents one reason as to why people do throw out food and, thus, contribute to food waste. To clarify, these selections are from articles that represent individual companies and are not the work of any students who were asked the question at hand. I used these as examples to illustrate a point.


While it is possible that a writer will have the necessary topic knowledge for their task and can produce a well-organized piece, some amount of pre-writing, which can take place using a knowledge-driven approach, can help a writer to avoid potential pitfalls.


Constructive


“Planning in Writing” advocates what they name the constructive planning style of writing. This tactic is highly personalized and involves elements of schema-driven strategies and requires the understanding of what makes a knowledge-transforming piece of writing. In their terms, “A constructive strategy involves setting one’s own goals, criteria, plans, and procedures in response to the task. It can operate at the executive level, shaping the entire plan, or be called on to carry out a schema- or knowledge-driven plan” (Flower et al, 1989). This emphasizes the utility of all planning strategies in writing and how each of these categories integrate into one another.


The constructive method is a goal and discourse-oriented approach that considers planning at all levels of the writing process. A writer, instead of starting with a script, would start with the task and their primary resources, building their own version of what that task should look like. This step asks the question of who is to benefit from the information being written and, ideally, a writer should build their representation of the task around a conception of their audience.


My focus for this blog, for example, is on writers, especially those for whom writing is their livelihood. The task I’ve set for myself is to supplement tools that are commonly used by those who write using strategies primarily found in scholarship that can provide other ways to frame the act of writing. My task is to also to address how to apply those strategies.


Since my task is self-assigned, it is my representation of the task. So, what’s left is to consider my audience including potential clients, colleagues, or anyone who is struggling with writing and wants to rethink their approach. Reaching the latter audience presents a broader and more abstract goal, a type of goal that helps when thinking through the constructive planning approach.


More broadly, then, a writer must generate a set of goals and sub-goals. This can be done using methods found in a schema-driven approach or a knowledge-driven pre-write. This step takes a foundational, possibly more abstract goal and breaks it down into the steps that it will take to achieve that goal to the extent that it meets the expectations of the task.


This is the primary reason why I decided to first focus on planning in writing. In theory and in practice, there is no single ideal method for planning a piece of writing. However, there are tools that make learning the best method for the individual easier.


With this in mind, what comes next is the integration of those goals. This is, arguably, the most difficult of the steps. The best way to approach this is to make an informed decision as to where to begin this process knowing that it does not have to start at the beginning of a piece of writing. It can easily start in the middle or in the end. This can involve the execution of a fully formed paragraph or section or another plan generated from some of the goals. It is best to ensure that the plans that are generated from this, in whatever form they happen to be in, are not fully separate from one another, that they can operate in a cohesive manner.


The first section in this article that was planned and written was the section on schema-driven planning because there is more information on that concept and because it is rooted in other disciplines. In addition, it is essential to distinguish a schema-driven plan from a constructive plan despite the fact that they can be similar and can operate together.


Throughout the writing process, the writer must be cognizant of the rhetorical strategies most prevalent in the discourse they are situated in or, more simply, be familiar with the conventions of the discourse and make the most appropriate choices for their own writing. Think about what is normally written about a given subject and how it is talked about. Construct your own argument, as a writer, as to whether the strategies presented are most effective for the subject and the amount of leniency you will have for your task. It’s possible that you will have to write in certain parameters and follow conventions to the letter, but it’s also possible that you will have more freedom to make those choices.


While this task was self-assigned, it’s possible that I would have been assigned the task of writing about how to complete a standard outline for an academic essay for children who are just starting to learn how to write essays. I would read at length and watch videos about how other instructors teach this and would possibly start with how to craft an introduction with a hook, a bridge, and a thesis statement. I would consider the question of how I would need to modify my language so I would be understood by young students and considered as a source for teachers. Understanding the way people talk about a subject is key to making a piece of writing knowledge-transforming and it is also essential to keep in mind during the constructive planning process.


Because constructive planning is a goal-oriented approach, a writer could conceivably encounter complex conflicting goals. To mitigate this, the writer must approach their piece with intent to resolve a conflict or set of conflicts. Ideally, the constructive planning process began with more abstract goals, so this is likely to happen at some point. It might be most productive, given your writing task, to consolidate or prioritize some goals over others. What is important is that the conflicts that you set to resolve in your writing, the expectations that you set for yourself and your audiences, are met.

For this post, my goal was to address three broad categories of planning in writing and to show how each can be applied to diverse writing projects. A constructive planning approach, lauded as the most ideal in “Planning in Writing” may overcomplicate a task for a writer and, as such, they might need something more like an outline or pre-write of another type. Knowing that there is more than one way to plan a piece of writing can help writers to approach their tasks in ways that are most productive for them. Your approach might not fit into one of these three categories, might be a combination of two or three of them, or might change in the middle of the writing process. Maybe it’s time to try out something new. Find out what works for you!


Feel free to leave me a comment and become a regular member of the Purposeful Prose community!


Sources:


Bartlett, F. C., & Bartlett, F. C. (1995). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge University Press.


Bryant, F. D. (2018, September 24). 12 Creative Writing Templates for Planning Your Novel. Evernote.Com | Blog. https://evernote.com/blog/12-creative-writing-templates/


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


MasterClass. (2020, November 8). How to Outline Your Novel in 5 Steps: Master Novel Template. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-outline-your-novel#what-are-the-pros-and-cons-of-creating-an-outline


Move For Hunger. (n.d.). About Food Waste. https://moveforhunger.org/food-waste


NY Book Editors. (2019, August 29). Planning To Outline Your Novel? Don’t. https://nybookeditors.com/2013/09/outlining/


RTS - Recycle Track Systems. (2021, February 3). Food Waste in America in 2021: Statistics & Facts | RTS. Recycle Track Systems. https://www.rts.com/resources/guides/food-waste-america/


Schmoop. (2013, September 6). Outlining by Shmoop [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MZPvMAXKvg

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