Start with a Plan

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Good writing begins with good planning. I like to formalize planning with a required document—a project plan. You might do something similar.

For a researched argument, I’ll have individual students complete a worksheet I call “Nutshell Your Argument.” In this one-page document, students identify the topic, the thesis, the audience, the main lines of argument, the counterarguments, and the sources of evidence. The assignment helps students get a fix on just what they are going to accomplish. They must consider the difference between topic (or subject) vs. thesis (or argumentative stance or purpose). They develop ways of thinking and talking about “lines of argument”—what that means and how to apply such thinking to their writing. They think about intended audience and the counterarguments an audience member might launch.

The nutshell provides me with an early check on assumptions about source requirements, allowing me to guide students toward academically respectable source material, and gives me a chance to intervene early in the assignment process. When we have time, each student briefs the class on his or her nutshell, offering a chance to clarify thinking through oral presentation and Q/A. I keep the presentation low stakes—everyone who does it gets credit.

With team assignments, I ask for something similar—a team project plan that presents the following:

  • Problem statement: what issues are being addressed or what problem is being solved
  • Significance or importance of project
  • Team information: contact information and team roles
  • Team rules or work expectations
  • Task breakdown
  • Schedule of work (typically as a chart or table) with project milestones
  • Anticipated hours to be spent on project (budget)
  • Cost (hours x hourly rates)

Writing a team plan accomplishes a number of goals. It forces teams to plan ahead and start to formulate individual commitments to team goals. It helps them think through how successful teams reach shared goals. It clarifies the anticipated outcomes and scopes the work to be accomplished. It ensures students know how to contact each other and helps them think about who will do what. It also underscores the adage “Time is money.” Students consider what the project is worth and what time they are willing to commit over the course of the project.

The team plan also works really well as a document design project. I ask students to use headings and to tag those headings, paragraphs or other elements in the style sheet. I encourage a visual presentation, with sections presented in tables or charts. I show students (in a mini-lesson) how to set up a document template, select or create styles, and format headers and footers. These are skills every writer needs. We post our plans to our discussion board so teams can see what other teams are up to and can “borrow” good ideas or design elements.

A formal plan can be updated for major projects in the form of a progress report. That allows teams to think through the difference between a prospective plan and a progress report, considering what to reuse and what new information should be added. The repurposed document can later be used as the backbone of the final report or an oral presentation. The final document can also chart the hours spent on the project and compare cost estimates to actuals.

We often think of planning and invention as synonymous. But a conceptual move from planning as gathering ideas to planning as project management will equip students with a valuable toolset and encourage them to see writing as a way to manage various activities, either individually or as a team member.

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About the Author
Dr. Stephen A. Bernhardt is recently retired from the University of Delaware, where he held the Andrew B. Kirkpatrick, Jr. Chair in Writing, from which position he promoted strong writing and communication skills across the university. He is the author of Writer's Help, a Web-based reference handbook from Bedford/St. Martin’s, now in Version 2.0. He teaches courses in scientific and technical communication, first year composition, computers and writing, and grammar and style. He taught previously at New Mexico State University and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. You can learn more about Steve at his Web site.