If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to get there.
That would seem like an obvious statement, but with most types of writing there is no way to meet a goal or to complete the project without a well-considered idea of what the project is or what it should look like when it’s finished. The need for a map or guide is especially true for big expository or argumentative projects like dissertations and scholarly or nonfiction books, especially edited or compiled books developed from chapters written by a number of different writers. The map serves as a guide. It gives the writing a GPS-like set of directions that, if followed, can get the writer close to—if not exactly at—the originally planned destination.
Having a sense of a destination and mapped directions, somewhat like an outline but more of a big-picture idea, doesn’t preclude the fact that much academic writing needs an opportunity to develop into its own. Most writers write themselves into an early draft and often find a sense of where they’re going at the end of that draft. In other words, the thesis becomes clear at the end of the piece, and it might be a bit different from what the writer initially thought it would be. That’s a natural part of writing and to be expected.
Every academic writer knows that for a piece to be published, it will need to be revised multiple times. That goes for a short article or a longer piece of writing. Once a book is drafted, for instance, it needs an editor’s eye to help shape it. The original organization is almost never quite right. The details, however well expressed, typically need to be honed. Some beloved words need to be abandoned or thrown out. Such is writing.
However, it’s still important to begin a project with a good sense of its goal. Without that goal as a destination, whether the project has a single writer or many writers, it will lack unity and coherence. Furthermore, having a solidly mapped plan of action that includes solid goals for the writing very much helps writers get where they need to go.
Frustration is inevitable without mapping. For an example from my own writing experience, in one edited collection writing project where I am one of many writers, I recently received a fifth set of different directions on what I should do to revise my chapter. This new guidance came from an external reviewer along the book’s final path to publication. Previous guidance for the article was a compilation from both an early external reviewer and one of the book’s editors. Prior to that, the book’s editors alone provided guidance on the written drafts, though without a clear map of the book’s direction and goal. I’m not the only author in that book who needs to address yet another set of revision directions, some of which are contrary to earlier instructions. It has begun to seem impossible to bring the chapter home when the expectations—or destination—keep changing.
While everyone should expect to need to revise a piece when it needs to fit into a compilation of interconnected pieces, had the book’s editors known what they were looking for at the outset, had they really known where they were going, their instructions would have taken all of the authors closer to the goal from the outset.
To avoid such situations, authors and editors need to provide clear guidance to themselves and to writers stemming from a strong sense of the book’s direction. That crucial mapping step enables a better chance of actually arriving at the destination.