The writing process: Determining constraints
It’s important to be realistic about what you can get done in a paper, and being realistic is what determining constraints is all about. A few things that determine your constraints are the kind of audience you have, the amount of time you have to write, the amount of space you’re allowed, the availability of information on your topic, the surplus of information on your topic, the purpose of the essay, and the assignment that you’ve been given (if you’re working from an assignment sheet).
Your audience will decide how you write. You can’t get too detailed with a generalist audience, while you can’t make many assumptions with an expert audience. A hostile audience requires an essay to use more space on supporting arguments.
Be real about your deadlines and any tendency you might have to procrastinate. Research and editing take time—much time—so plan for them. If you’re argument is too ambitious, you may find yourself without the time to properly research and polish your document, so know how much effort your argument will require. What’s your deadline? What are your other time commitments before that deadline? What can you argue well in the time you have to write your essay?
If you need to work in collaboration with other students, academics, or professionals, ensure that you have an idea of their schedules and time constraints. Account for time it will take to meet with them, and discuss your strategy. Make a schedule with them, and don’t miss your deadlines.
Finally, whether you’re working alone or with others, plan to be done at least a few days ahead of time so that you’re prepared when something unforeseen breaks your schedule—something often will.
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One of the most difficult abilities for a writer to acquire is the ability to know how many words it will take to adequately support a given thesis statement. It takes practice and experience to be able to accurately forecast how much space your argument will take, but you need to try. Don’t bite off more than you can chew, and try to avoid going over word count.
Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when you consider this constraint: First, a paper that is too short is easy to expand on. Usually, you can simply add extra sub-arguments or take some time to explain some of the consequences of your argument. A paper that needs to go too long in order to adequately support its argument is very difficult to condense without losing essential information. For this reason, prefer to plan for your paper to go a little bit under the suggested length (but ensure that it is long enough by the time you finish).
Second, and counterintuitively, the more precise or specific a topic you choose to explore, the easier it will be to control the paper’s length. This is because broad topics require you to explain everything that is clearly related to them, whereas specific topics don’t often come with so much baggage, allowing for more choice, and thus control.
Availability of information
All arguments require support, and research papers, for example, will require support from secondary sources. For some arguments, you might suspect that you are right and that a study could be done to prove it, but if you can’t find that study in your research, you can’t support your argument. Make sure that there is adequate research on your topic so that you can properly support your argument. If the research simply isn’t there, you may have to alter your argument or find a new one.
Surplus of information
Your essay’s thesis statement should be original. You might have a great argument to make, but if it’s been made already, it won’t count for much. This is especially true if your essay is an MA thesis, dissertation or a research paper. Do your background research to make sure that you’re saying something original. If you find that someone’s already made your argument, try to incorporate that argument and modify your argument to take a new angle on the topic.
If your purpose is to simply explain someone else’s argument (as in an exegetical essay, for example), you shouldn’t evaluate that argument. In contrast, if your purpose is to inspire action, you will not only have to evaluate arguments, but also tell the audience what they should do with the information you give. Is your argument to inform people of a certain state of affairs? To persuade them to think of something differently? To encourage them to take a certain course of action? Each of these purposes come with different requirements.
If you’re given an assignment or assignment sheet, you need to parse it. Make sure that you do everything you’ve been asked to do, and nothing too far afield what you’ve been asked to do. Make a checklist of all the things that are required of you, and ensure that you cross each one off. If you are unsure of anything at all, ask your professor to help you understand and make a note the explanation you’re given.