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  • writing reports

    Any thoughts or links to ideas on how to break down the actions of writing complex reports into small manageable pieces? Each report describes the situation the data was collected in and the methods used, why, the limits to its usefulness, the data, hypthotheses, and then draws a conclusion and make recommendations. But writing the report does not flow though the process sequentially. I usually spend about 6 hours in one chunk of time on these but I want to do it differently and make it go faster.

  • #2
    Have you tried starting with a mind map?

    Sometimes I'll make short notes on a paper mind map and elaborate as I write it up. Sometimes I'll use Mind Manager. Sometimes I use OmniOutliner, which can be good for letting you drill down into the structure of a document and focus on a piece at a time.

    Whichever way you do it, I think something akin to the Natural Planning Model™ is a good way to go. Just make sure you feel free to alternate between dumping thoughts and structuring what you wrote, its kind of circular for written work.
    Last edited by sarahg; 07-01-2010, 09:24 PM.

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    • #3
      good shout, mindmapping is a great way forward. Anytime I have anything that isnt an opbvious process, a good brainstorming session is how I start. Mindmaps are my tool of choice. i tend to find I get 90% or so of my ideas out right at the beginning. The rest is just typing it up.

      As a resource Id suggest checking out The Mindmap Book by Tony Buzan, who invented the mindmap. Lots of good ways to apply mindmapping to new situations, particularly academic or research ones.

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      • #4
        I second mind maps

        Here is another vote for mind maps.

        Like you, I often have to write lengthy and complex reports. Here is what has helped me:

        * Mind map by hand (on paper). I have found many (often hidden) benefits from mindmapping/brainstorming by hand vs on a keyboard.
        * Ponder on the mindmap--it seems silly when we are often pressured to finish quickly, but the time taken to reflect on the connections will often pay for itself.

        After a while, natural "clusters" will form. These clusters can then be put into your text editor of choice and organized. You can cut and paste to look at the structure and rearrange as needed. Then, you can pull up a second window and start drafting into it.

        Ideally, your mindmap will contain all of your data (or reminders of it), and your organized plan will contain everything you intend to put in the report (or reminders). I consider that the "best practice".

        The above is just the Natural Planning Model applied to a specific situation. We can thank David Allen, because it really works.

        -JohnV474

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        • #5
          Originally posted by Jamie Elis View Post
          Any thoughts or links to ideas on how to break down the actions of writing complex reports into small manageable pieces?
          I can't seem to wrap my brain around mind maps at all. They are too free form for my tastes. So I use outlines. I typically just start in the outline stage in the word processor and add sections and sub sections as thoughts occur to me. Being able to move whole sections around and jump to other sections as you write is critical for me.

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          • #6
            applying GTD to writing problems

            How nice for so many replies. As to mindmapping and outlining, both are useful to me. Some of the reports have some sections that lend themselves well to mind mapping--when the information I am processing is qualitative and more idiosyncratic, or when there are pieces of information that do not fit well standard sections. For most of the reports, at least a half of the report, I write most easily from an outline because the content is pretty closed ended, the observations and data do not need much interpretation and the implications are straightforward.

            I just sense that if I could break these projects down into smaller pieces, then I would not have to immerse myself for 6 hours. My colleague says he never revises, he sits down and knows exactly what he wants to say and writes it out! It takes him 2 hours and lot less paper! What the problems are for me are 1) I seem to have to rewrite almost every sentence after I read things back! Once I change one sentence, then I have to change another, and another, etc. If I start reading back early in the writing process I do, in fact, get a better focus and can narrow the scope of the work better and make it more cohesive. This is the opposite of what I have been taught in writing classes where I was told to write the first draft from beginning to end, then revise.
            2) As I write and read back my thinking expands and expands, then it kind of contracts and finds its way.
            3) Narration, description, explanation get all interwoven for me in these reports.

            So, any thoughts on using GTD to analyze the problems and solve them?

            Comment


            • #7
              Here are some alternatives

              The best answer for you, perhaps by definition, would be to have you reflect on those reports that proceeded better than normal... and then to identify (and reproduce) those circumstances. Can you remember a time in which you were in your zone? How does that compare to current reports?

              For example, did you pull an all-nighter? were you working at home? did that report have a different target audience? what were the circumstances in other areas of your life at that time? did you brainstorm more on paper? more free writing? reading aloud? etc.

              Once you have identified a few characteristics between an "in the zone" moment and now, try to replicate them and see what impact it has. Somewhere there are some details that permit you to work with greater productivity/focus.

              Changing direction, there are countless ways to approach a new report in order to test your ideal working scene or to stimulate creative thinking. For example, you could start a report by using your target audience's current (ignorant) state and "walking with them" along the path until they know what you know. Another approach is to apply Parkinson's Law by creating arbitrary deadlines for each phase and then committing to stopping at that point, no matter what condition the phase is in. In that way, you can prevent the inevitable bloating (in perceived complexity) that occurs when there is no deadline. An hour per section in "rough draft" mode and then returning to an hour per section in "second draft" mode may work better than trying to flow start to finish, for instance.

              Last thought, in case it provides any insight: David Allen discusses the reticular activating filter, and how our focus changes what we see and notice. You may want to check with yourself that you aren't focusing on the obstacles in your path as opposed to the vision. I don't mean to imply anything here, only to mention the concept.

              These ideas are just to help stir the pot. I wish I could give you something more definitive.

              -JohnV474

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              • #8
                very interesting and appllicable ideas

                My report writing seems to come together somewhere between the 2nd or 4th hours--so yes all night work because there are no interruptions then!. It seems to take that long to see how all the data fit together. but I can't see how all of it fits together until I have tabulated it and described it and then parred down the descriptions and eliminated any vagueness and complex assumptions. The writing process is like developing a picture for me (the old fashioned chemical way), finally I see what is there. Re-writing is terribly tedious as a physical process. I once read an interesting book about how writing and thinking are linked together in a cyclical way and I think I just have to go through repeated cycles . So maybe this is more of a thinking problem than a writing problem (which is where the mind mapping and outlining suggestions are pointing me). I do like your ideas and I am going to try them.

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                • #9
                  I think you should consider Information Mapping. The methodology and software were designed for your situation.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Jamie Elis View Post
                    If I start reading back early in the writing process I do, in fact, get a better focus and can narrow the scope of the work better and make it more cohesive. This is the opposite of what I have been taught in writing classes where I was told to write the first draft from beginning to end, then revise.
                    The most recent advice I've read is from Robert Boice's "Advice to New Faculty Members". He advocates the use of conceptual outlines - documents that combine traditional outlines with draft text. His general advice is to start with a complete, top-level outline and then expand downwards bit by bit. (in this, he replaces his advice in his earlier "Professors as Writers", which was similar to what you were taught)

                    The book might be worth a look, although the emphasis is on writing original material in limited snatches of time, and only about a third is on writing.

                    (I appreciate this isn't answering your specific question about GTD)

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Jamie Elis View Post
                      How nice for so many replies. As to mindmapping and outlining, both are useful to me. Some of the reports have some sections that lend themselves well to mind mapping--when the information I am processing is qualitative and more idiosyncratic, or when there are pieces of information that do not fit well standard sections. For most of the reports, at least a half of the report, I write most easily from an outline because the content is pretty closed ended, the observations and data do not need much interpretation and the implications are straightforward.

                      I just sense that if I could break these projects down into smaller pieces, then I would not have to immerse myself for 6 hours. My colleague says he never revises, he sits down and knows exactly what he wants to say and writes it out! It takes him 2 hours and lot less paper! What the problems are for me are 1) I seem to have to rewrite almost every sentence after I read things back! Once I change one sentence, then I have to change another, and another, etc. If I start reading back early in the writing process I do, in fact, get a better focus and can narrow the scope of the work better and make it more cohesive. This is the opposite of what I have been taught in writing classes where I was told to write the first draft from beginning to end, then revise.
                      2) As I write and read back my thinking expands and expands, then it kind of contracts and finds its way.
                      3) Narration, description, explanation get all interwoven for me in these reports.

                      So, any thoughts on using GTD to analyze the problems and solve them?
                      I never get 6 contiguous hours to do anything but sleep, so I'm jealous.

                      If you are writing such reports regularly, then you should be able to develop a standard template and a catalog of stock paragraphs or sentences you can use. I think the seamless outline to rough draft method works best for me. You put in sections and subsections to get started, populate with sentences, ideas, and reminders, then get to work on getting a draft in shape. Next actions are generally to fill gaps in the text. You don't have to list all the gaps, though, just the ones you think you want to tackle next. This way, the document is both project support and the finished product (eventually).

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Oogiem View Post
                        I can't seem to wrap my brain around mind maps at all. They are too free form for my tastes. So I use outlines. I typically just start in the outline stage in the word processor and add sections and sub sections as thoughts occur to me. Being able to move whole sections around and jump to other sections as you write is critical for me.
                        I agree with Ooglem. I know that mind maps are wonderful for some people. I have been to a couple of training sessions on mindmaps. I think that my mind is more analytical and I am much more confortable with an outline.
                        Its usually pen and paper at the beginning, sometimes at the computer.

                        I am not knocking mindmaps at all. I know that a lot of people love them. I just want to put my two cents in that for some of us outlines are a lot more productive.

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