The Building Blocks: Understanding the Task and Setting Goals

Updated: Apr 29, 2021



People often consider writing to be a difficult task because there is no “correct answer” to how to write. As stated in “The Cogs of Writing Cognition,” I prefer to separate pieces of writing into the categories of what does and doesn’t work. Sometimes, even when a concrete task of writing is presented, there are barriers to beginning. The reason why “Planning in Writing” advocates for the constructive method of planning is that it presents a framework that helps people to think through those barriers. Every writer can and should have their own method of planning that works for them, but even a method or set of methods that are tried and true might not be adequate for all writing tasks.


In “Putting a Name to It,” the constructive writing planning strategy was introduced, and I used this blog and my personal goals to illustrate each part of the strategy. Constructive planning draws on topic knowledge and the information that can be provided in a schema, but effectively constructs a more personalized plan. Ideally, the result of a constructive process would be improved management of more abstract problems and knowledge transformation through integrated topic knowledge or schemas.

The first step of the constructive planning process is to build a personal representation of the task at hand. This can help a person to better understand the task, but it’s also about understanding how the given task should be approached. This depends on context as well. A task given in a newsroom, for example, will not be the same as one given in academia.


It’s important to note that, throughout the project, the first impressions and initial representations of the task can be subject to change, but the initial representations of the task are important and should establish specific static “rules” for that task. “Planning in Writing” separates these rules into five dimensions. These are “topic,” “theme/purpose,” “form,” “audience,” “task-specific goals” (Flower et al, 1989). This is to say that there are aspects of the task that cannot be changed in the process of building a representation and that, in the act of giving a task, some of those goals have already been set.


To illustrate this point, I’ll give an example of a writing task that might be given in academia. The task might be to analyze the poem, “The Grass so little has to do,” by Emily Dickinson and to discuss what that poem says about nature, how different parts of nature interact with one another, and what the ending states about Dickinson’s personal interest in nature.

The following is a transcript of that poem: “The Grass so little has to do, A Sphere of simple Green - With only Butterflies, to brood, And Bees, to entertain –


And stir all day to pretty tunes The Breezes fetch along, And hold the Sunshine in it’s lap And bow to everything,


And thread the Dews, all night, like Pearl, And make itself so fine A Duchess, were to common For such a noticing,


And even when it die, to pass In odors so divine - As lowly spices, laid to sleep - Or Spikenards perishing –


And then to dwell in Sovreign Barns, And dream the Days away, The Grass so little has to do, I wish I were a Hay - ”

-- Emily Dickinson F379 (1862) 333


Now, let’s break down this writing task. In this essay, we need to state how the different parts of nature in this poem relate to one another and then state what the ending of the poem states about Dickinson’s personal interest in nature.


Our topic is nature and what specifically nature is doing in this poem. The purpose, while partly indicated in the prompt itself, can be to show that Dickinson is personifying nature. If we include this purpose in the representation of our task, we now have these questions:


In this poem, in what way is nature like people? Conversely, how are people like nature according to this poem?


Does the line, “The Grass so little has to do,” mean that the grass is smaller and appears insignificant but that it does much more than we recognize?


Furthermore, we might know that Dickinson’s letters and poetry show a fascination with the colors present in nature. She wrote a letter in 1876 to a Mrs. Holland to whom she asked what nature would look like in “other than standard colors” and was fascinated with the fact that, during a drought, “the grass was painted brown.” It wouldn’t, then, be a stretch to ask if this has anything to do with her wishing to be “a Hay.”

The form, if this is given in academia, might be an essay and the audience might be a class and/or other academics.


Notice that we used different dimensions to take the questions asked in the original task and form new questions based on the broader prompt. There might be more questions through the course of both the planning and writing process. Alternatively, these questions may not be the most appropriate with which to structure information for this task. We would read the poem carefully, already performing a type of analysis in that initial reading, and immediately go back to the task and expand on it.


This leads to the next part of the constructive planning process, creating a network of goals. Goals can be literal goals for the specific task, overall writing goals, and they can also come in the form of rules such as “Remain focused on A and B because C is tangential to the task at hand.” We need to articulate those goals in such a way that they are appropriate to the task and realistic to the writing process. At this stage, an outline can be helpful, but it’s important to keep in mind that the standard outline can imply a more linear process of gathering information and restating it. While an outline can do more than that depending on the way that it’s written and used, planning in writing suggests a kind of a “mind map” or “tree diagram.”

This kind of representation is more realistic to the writing process and can more clearly demonstrate relationships between different goals and ideas that an outline cannot always show. A mind map/goal network can be construed as schema-driven, and that would be correct, but it can and does present a more personalized visual representation of the methods used to think through writing tasks. Drawing out a mind map can help, but if you’re looking for a user-friendly computer software, I recommend Miro. It’s a free service with paid options, but the free option works well for personal use. There are other programs that are similar and can perform different functions, but I find this one to be the most straightforward.


If we frame the mind map as a goal network, there are multiple benefits, but I will address seven of them that “Planning in Writing” illustrate to a degree, but updating them.


· A goal network can be a way in which you, as a writer, can give your own instructions on what to achieve and, most importantly, how that can be done. Writing, in itself, isn’t a process that can be broadly defined, so it’s essential to define the process for the self to achieve the best possible results.

· There are multiple ways to create a new representation of a task and, by the same token, there are multiple ways to create a goal network. While having a goal isn’t the same as having a full plan, a goal can translate into a plan very quickly, especially when it’s working in conjunction with other goals.

· The items that we establish as goals have a natural hierarchy in our minds. We already prioritize certain goals over others. If we have difficulty seeing what’s most important, we can think of this as what needs to be most important according to the task or [if the task is broad enough] we create subgoals and map out additional information to help that process along.

· The structure of the goal network can change at any time. While having a hierarchical network helps, anything can be changed at any time.

· Some parts of this network will be easier to articulate than others. When it’s difficult to describe verbally, it might help to use a picture, a quotation, or a reference to a page in a book. Keep in mind that the goal network is a means by which a problem can be solved and not everything has to be clear right away.

· As you continue working on the goal network, certain parts of it might be more useful than others and more fitting for your writing goals. Again, these are goals that the writer sets for themselves, so while the writer’s topic knowledge may encompass a great deal on a subject, not all of that topic knowledge may ultimately prove useful for the writing task. Indicate those sections. You are not limited to one goal network. It may help to create a new one to address what’s most important in the moment.

· The way that this goal network is constructed, worked with, and managed can mean the difference between a piece of writing that works and a piece of writing that does not work. To further explain, it’s not that there is an incorrect method by which the goals can be mapped and thought through. Rather, it’s important to actively engage with the goal network once it has been created so as to maximize its benefits. Once a goal network has been created, it might help to re-organize it or add notes. What helps you in your writing is not wrong, and if it works for you, it is valid. What matters is that you engage in the process.

The next piece will continue into a deeper exploration of the constructive planning process and will focus on different strategies of integrating goals. Be sure to look at my last post on different categories of writing planning for a more condensed explanation of what that means.


I always look forward to your input! Remember that if you become a member of the Purposeful Prose Community, you’ll be able to engage directly with my posts, comment, and ask questions.


Thank you to all of my members and to all of those who have thus far provided excellent feedback. I appreciate all of you.


Sources:


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


Franklin, R. (Ed.). (1999). The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press.


Mosolkova, M. G., Mardanshina, R. M., & Kalganova, G. F. (2015). Color palette of Emily Dickinson worldview: Linguistic and Literary approach. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 6(1 S3), 331-331.

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