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Academic Coaching & Writing

VII. Chunk Your Writing Project into Small Assignments

Oct 17, 2012 by Dr Sally

One strategy to get started on a large writing project is to set SMART goals. An equally important strategy is to think in terms of small assignments, rather than large and overwhelming tasks.

When faced with a large writing project, writing coaches advise you to break the large project down into manageable writing assignments. Anne Lamott, author of bird by bird, imagines a one-inch picture frame and suggests you think in terms of this tiny frame rather than the big picture. Her book on her own writing process is called bird by bird because one night her older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to write a term paper on birds that he’d had months to write. He’d procrastinated, and it was due the next day. As he sat at the kitchen table in tears, with piles of books on birds and immobilized by the enormity of the task, his father sat down beside him, put his arm around his shoulder, and said, “bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Just as Anne’s brother re-conceptualized his term paper in terms of single birds, begin to think of your project in terms of short assignments. Remember a dissertation or a book is written one word at a time.

The assumption is that you will be able to instinctively see how to “chunk” an insurmountable writing task into manageable pieces. However, the truth is that academic writers often are too paralyzed by the hugeness of the project to do so. Although dissertations and books are broken down into chapters, a chapter is far too long to qualify as a writing chunk.

So where do you start? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Writers need to select a strategy that fits their approach. Here are four suggestions:


Outlining is a familiar way to manage a large writing project. A detailed outline is a well-organized list of the small parts of the project. For example, under each standard chapter heading of a dissertation or section heading of a journal article (introduction, literature review, methodology, findings, conclusion), outline the information that will go into that chapter or section. Many dissertation guides and books can help you with standard headings in your introduction and methodology. (However, the literature review calls for you to find your own way to conceptualize your topic and, therefore, you will need to create your own outline for this section.) Similarly, many journals use standard headings, which become evident after reviewing articles from several issues.

Refine the outline until you have at least three levels of specificity. The points listed in the third, most specific level become the chunks or small assignments that make up that chapter. For example, in the literature review of a dissertation examining school practices that promote postsecondary success in underachieving high school students, the third level of the outline (in numerals) might include the following:

I. Review of literature
      A. Research on school practices that promote postsecondary success in underachieving high school students
           1. School management and leadership
           2. School structure
           3. Curriculum
           4. Instructional strategies
           5. School climate
           6. Guidance and counseling

This third level is made up of chunks that break down the larger topic (marked as letter A in the outline) into short, manageable assignments.

Don’t worry if your outline doesn’t appear to “flow” or transition from one idea to the next. You may stray from your original outline, and oftentimes you may not be aware of how your chunks or concepts fit together until you have drafted your text. In this case, create a “reverse outline” or a “descriptive outline” by removing the text and leaving the headings to help you think about how a section is structured and how the ideas fit together. This will enable you to reflect on your organization and will permit needed revisions to tighten up your argument.


A psychological perspective on writing suggests that establishing high-level goals is necessary to establish a sense of purpose for a task. Subgoals enable people to break a task into manageable parts. Subgoals allow writers to complete a task successfully, thereby enhancing their feeling of competence or self-efficacy, and to take control of their own work.

To establish subgoals, ask yourself “why” and “how” for each chapter of the dissertation or book. When you ask why you are writing a particular chapter, you should generate two or more statements of purpose (your goals). Purpose statements are high-level, abstract goals. For example, why do you write an introduction? Your purpose statements might include the following: Create interest in the topic, establish the topic’s importance/significance/relevance of my problem, and familiarize readers with the topic.

The next step is to take each of these abstract statements and ask “how.” In the example of the dissertation on school practices that promote postsecondary success in underachieving high school students, you might start by examining the prevalence of high school dropout in underachieving high school students. This is a concrete task and it establishes a subgoal. Each subgoal is a writing chunk.


Both outlining and subgoaling are linear approaches to writing, but creativity can be nonlinear. Some writers require nonlinear approaches. In fragmenting, you start with a subject you feel confident about. If you have just interviewed a number of school counselors about predictors of postsecondary success and want to write about the results while they are still fresh in your mind, go ahead. Continue to write, asking yourself periodically, “What else does my reader need to know about this?” When you run out of answers to that question, you have completed that chunk.

Cut and paste the chunk into a file for the appropriate chapter. Each time you write a chunk that belongs in that chapter, cut and paste it at the end of your previous chunk. Go back later, when the draft of the chapter is complete and rearrange the chunks, adding transitions where needed. During the revision stage, allow time to create a meaningful organization of the chunks and identify any missing pieces.


The sequencing approach to chunking falls somewhere between the linear strategy of outlining and the nonlinear strategy of fragmenting. Use this strategy to generate sequences that become writing chunks. Think of key points that you want to cover in a particular chapter, and write a summative phrase or sentence on an index card or a Post-It. Keep brainstorming until you have run out of key points.

Next, reread your notes and sort them by putting related points together. For example, assume you have three notes that read: (1) “The sample was drawn from principals, teachers, and counselors in California continuation high schools,” (2) “The survey completion rate was 35 percent,” and (3) “The list of principals, teachers, and counselors was obtained from the state organization of continuation high school professionals.” You can see that (1) and (3) are related, so you would “stick” them together in a chunk about the participants in the study and put (2) in another column or pile for later use. Next, you determine the correct sequence for each column or pile. Each column or pile comprises a sequence, and each sequence is a chunk.

It takes practice to learn to break down large tasks into small assignments. Experiment with outlining, subgoaling, fragmenting, and sequencing to see what works best for you.


Lamott A. (1995). bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor.

Questions for Reflection

1. Breaking tasks into small assignments is challenging for most people. How have you been successful at breaking big writing tasks down into small assignments?

2. How could you apply outlining, subgoaling, fragmenting, or sequencing to help you improve your ability to break a big writing task down into smaller components?

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