The key to writing? Planning and organization, especially for EAL students

Tuesday, June 16, 2020
by Marian Toledo Candelaria, Writing and Multimodal Communication Specialist

Writing in English is hard. I know because I’ve been doing so every day for the last ten years. Navigating a labyrinth of sudden structural differences and changing expectations, my path towards writing my Master’s and PhD theses was not an easy one. I was ill-prepared for English writing, despite studying the language for twelve years in school and speaking it fluently. On top of that, since the COVID-19 pandemic has completely altered our routines and ways of life, many grad students struggle even more to focus on writing while they are far away from their families, friends, and loved ones. These are trying times!

So, if English is not your first language—like in my case—here I offer some suggestions strategies and techniques that have helped me complete a dissertation in my second language. These strategies revolve around what I consider the two most important elements to producing graduate-level papers: planning and organization.

Why planning and organizing?

First thing’s first: why do I emphasize planning and organizing? Isn’t that what all graduate students are supposed to do before writing anyway? In short: yes, it is. But there is a reason why planning and organization are extra important for EAL grad students.

Processing information in an additional language presents an extra challenge: English might have different linguistic structure than your first language. For example, academic writing in Spanish has

  • a heavy focus on theoretical background information, sometimes over the author’s own thesis;
  • arguments that are often located towards the end rather than stated in the beginning;
  • overly complex sentences contain advanced, flowery vocabulary infrequently used in other contexts;
  • and tangential passages filled with metaphors, similes, and allegories.

That is because in Spanish, we think in anecdotes, in stories, in tangents. We love our colourful narratives or “cuentos” (stories). When telling someone a “cuento,” we don’t go straight to the point: we give the whole background before we jump into the action, sidetracking into interesting and loosely-related additional narratives that support our main story. And that’s exactly how we don’t write or think in English.

When writing or speaking English, we don’t like disgressions.

Contrary to Spanish academic writing, English writing

  • Requires that the author’s main argument is front and centre.
  • Contains a linear structure: readers need a clear, from-A-to-Z structure in order to understand the information in the article.
  • Tangential arguments or passages are discouraged and considered either irrelevant or confusing.
  • Sentences tend to have a simpler structure, even when the author is using passive voice

In English, the reader is not meant to assume or deduct: the writer needs to do all the work. Understanding the structural differences between English and your first language can help you plan and organize your essays in a clearer way for your reader. In my experience as a teacher, writer and researcher, planning and organizing paper for an Anglophone audience is where most EAL students struggle.

Now, don’t just take my word for it. Hear what the EAL students interviewed for the Oregon State University documentary Writing Across Borders have to say about the differences between English and their first languages:

Remote video URL

YouTube video: Towson Writing Center, Writing Across Borders (Part 1)

How can I improve my writing, then?

Here are three specific tactics I use to keep my writing projects on track:

Talk it out

I get stuck all the time. In fact, I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what I wanted to focus on in this blog post. So talking things out—to my friends, my sister on Facebook, or my WCC colleagues—helps me articulate my thoughts. It gives me the space to organize ideas and eliminate what is “puro cuento” (just story) from my papers so I can get straight to the main argument and supporting points.

Since I’m on lockdown like everyone else, my favourite way of talking it out is… talking to myself! Pacing around my apartment, I can start processing, organizing, and articulating my thoughts (and, as an added bonus, I can log a bunch of steps into my Fitbit). Want to talk to someone about your ideas for an essay? Make an appointment with any WCC Writing Specialist—that’s what we’re here for!

Figure 1: GIF of me pacing around my apartment before writing this blog post.

Collect your ideas and research in the same place

When I was in grad school, I experimented with a variety of note-taking techniques and software: Evernote, loose-leaf papers, marginal scribbles on books and photocopies, Post-Its on walls and books, Microsoft Word, Zotero, OneNote. I learned that I can recall information better when I write it by hand. Although having handwritten notes scatted throughout my apartment is highly inconvenient when writing a long piece of work, there is a way to create a centralized repository of handwritten notes.

Dr Raúl Pacheco-Vega of CIDE México has championed the Everything Notebook, where he collects his research and writing practice in one place (side note: Dr Pacheco-Vega has an exceptional website with great writing resources for grad students and scholars. I recommend it to everyone!). The Everything Notebook is highly customizable to individual needs. I used a notebook to collect all the research, notes, and organization for two chapters of my thesis, and that led me to develop my arguments in depth. I credit the notebook with helping me write my chapters faster.


Figure 2: The notebook I used to organize the research, ideas, and arguments I incorporated into Chapter 3 of my PhD thesis. This chapter had a very complex argument, so organizing my sources, comments, notes, and structure in one place helped me to write the chapter.

Make a map or outline of your ideas in any language

Ideas can’t stay in your head forever. You need to turn them into an essay.

This is why mapping out or outlining your ideas is so important, especially when you are writing in English as an additional language. Mapping out ideas allows for a free-flowing way to start analyzing, and then organizing, your information on a page in a non-linear way. How are things connected? What is your main idea, and which are your supporting arguments? How much theoretical background do you need, and how can you make sure it doesn’t distract from your argument? These are all questions you can think about while mapping out your ideas.

How do I map out ideas? I like pen and paper. I like to see the big picture before I sketch out the details. I need to organize the global aspects of a paper (topics and chapters) before I concern myself with specific details (e.g. where each argument goes, what sources I need in specific sections). This is the same approach I used to design clothes when I was a fashion student, and an approach I think also works wonders with designing essay structures. It doesn’t matter much how you approach mind mapping or outlining or in what language you write your content—what matters is that you can see your ideas on paper first before arranging them in a structure that is clear to an English-speaking audience.

Although I’m a huge fan of pen and paper (and colour Sharpies), there are several cool apps that can help you mind map or outline. At the moment, I’m enjoying Scapple quite a bit because of its simplicity but there are other (free) software out there like Mind Meister, GitMind, and FreeMind.


Figure 3: Mind map of Chapter 4 of my thesis drafted in Scapple. I’m turning the chapter into a journal article. Mapping out the ideas I want to highlight from the chapter allows me to focus only on one main idea.

After following these planning and organization tips, you’ll be ready to put fingers to keyboard and type away. These tips have helped me succeed in grad school, and I trust they’ll help you, too.