Applying the Mumford method to report-writing

Philosopher Stephen Mumford has developed a process for writing academic papers, known as the Mumford method. It involves producing a summary of your argument in a very particular format, using this summary when speaking (both as notes for yourself and as a hand-out for the audience), refining it after feedback each time you present, and eventually writing up. It’s been used by professors through to a-level students and always sounded like a convincing idea.

I decided to try it out when working on a recent internal report on Open Education at Bristol, in collaboration with my colleague Jane Williams, and it worked well. We initially produced a handout, roughly in the format Mumford describes. After several iterations of this handout we used it as our plan for the final briefing paper.

Although we started with the Mumford method instructions, I made some small refinements for the slightly different circumstances. My summary was:

  • single-sided
  • landscape with 4 columns of 10pt text (as the points being made tended to be relatively brief)
  • sub-divided into section headings (these did not neatly fit with the 4 columns but that was fine)
  • produced in Google Drive to allow collaboration (this involved using a table for the columns – a little fiddly but workable)

We used this handout both for meetings with individuals and when presenting the paper at larger meetings for consultation, and it was very effective as an aid to discussion.

I was tasked with writing up and found I could relatively quickly write up the report based on the outline (which I had talked through many times by this point). Each of the four columns produced almost exactly one A4 page of relatively spare prose, more than I had anticipated. But the argument remained very clear and it was extremely easy to produce a summary of the key points, drawing almost directly from the handout. It’s definitely something I’ll use again.