Planning Papers and Reports: Some Tips for Students

Ann Forsyth's picture

For most planning programs in the U.S. this is the end of the semester. Having read literally hundreds of papers over the past few months I have reflected on the lessons of better papers for writing in planning.

  • Find the right level of ambition. Papers or reports that are too ambitious risk seeming unfocused and shallow. On the other hand papers (or planning reports) lacking ambition-perhaps describing a place through one fairly standard lens-may just not say enough of interest to do really well.
  • Make an argument that someone else will care about. A simple description of a standard phenomenon can demonstrate that you have some knowledge of a topic but a better paper convinces the reader that this matters to them or to the world.
  • Make an argument that hangs together. Try diagramming your argument-your claim, evidence, qualifications, and so on. If you can't diagram it, you may not have much of an argument. My favorite book on writing papers-Booth et al.'s (2008) the Craft of Research-has great tips.
  • Demonstrate that you understand your sources. As a planner you are typically writing for experts-other professionals, council members who know their constituencies, residents who know their neighborhoods. Using sources selectively to support opinions you merely mean to illustrate, rather than argue for, will undermine your credibility. Failing to show an understanding of which studies and datasets can support which kinds of claims will get you in similar hot water. Show you know when an oral history is great evidence and when you need a cost-benefit study.
  • Use multiple data sources where possible. Making a coherent argument from statistics, observations, maps, interviews, and historical information is tricky but is likely to be a better argument than one based on a single source. Incidentally some people find certain data sources more convincing than others and you are more likely to hit on one of these sources if you use several.
  • Get key technical terms right. Don't mix up the Athens Charter and the Charter of the New Urbanism-there are commonalities but experts in urban design know the difference.

This is my April blog quite late.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.



Great advice from Ann Forsyth, and some additional thoughts

Speaking as one who has also read numerous papers, this is great advice from Professor Ann Forsyth.

To her comments I would add:

(1) Start with an outline of your paper;
(2) Consistently follow a style book. I prefer the University of Chicago Manual of Style;
(3) Write in active voice; and
(4) Become familiar with various planning research sources and databases and standard texts in the field, especially those that are available through your university library. I give my students a list of journals to consider, including the following: Planning Advisory Service Reports published by the American Planning Association; Journal of the American Planning Association; Urban Studies; Journal of Planning History; Journal of Urban History; Journal of Planning Education and Research; Planning magazine; Planning Theory and Practice; Environment and Planning, A, B,C, & D; Urban Affairs Review; Planning Theory: Planning and Environmental Law; Zoning Practice; Urban Lawyer; Journal of Urban Affairs; Urban Land; Housing Policy Debate; and Cityscape. I also direct them to the HUD User and Transportation Research Board websites, which are excellent.

My favorite standard planning texts are:

Eric Damian Kelly. Community Planning: An Introduction to the Comprehensive Plan, 2d edition. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2009. (terrific)

Phillip R. Berke and David Godschalk. Urban Land Use Planning, Fifth Edition. Urbana, IL.: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

J. Barry Cullingworth and Roger Caves. Planning in the U.S.A. : Policies, Issues and Processes. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Stuart Meck, FAICP/PP
Associate Research Professor and Director
Center for Planning Practice
Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Omit Needless Words

All of what Professor Forsyth has to say on the topic of writing papers and reports is advice worth following. I would add one more suggestion. Get and read The Elements of Style and follow Rule #17--Omit needless words!

The Elements of Style is a writing guide that was first self-published in 1918 by William Strunk (1869 - 1946.) He was a professor in the English Department at Cornell University. In 1959, Professor Strunk's former student, E. B. White (1899 - 1985), worked with Macmillan Publishing to perform a thorough overhaul and updating of Strunk's original text. Macmillan published three more editions--in 1972, 1979, and 1999. In 2008, Longman Publishing issued the 50th anniversary edition.

Rule #17 remains unchanged. "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentence, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell." This is from page 3 of the 1972 edition.

H. Pike Oliver, Sr. Lecturer
Cornell University Program in Real Estate


As Julian Beinart put it to his Theory of City Form class once:
"I find that most papers with content worth my interest are written by those of you who clearly have a chip on your shoulder."

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