The Writing Process

We often think that when professional writers begin a new piece of writing the words just flow effortlessly to the page.  The good news is that this is a myth.  All writers use a process approach when they write that may include some of the steps listed below.  Our minds don't always work to create logical paragraphs and to present carefully planned-out thesis sentences.  And if we wait for those to appear before we begin writing, we will wait a long time.  It's better to start by getting something down on paper and then working through these steps to create a finished essay.

Generating Ideas     Back to top

    Writers use many different methods to generate ideas for the next writing assignment.  Strategies like listing (making a list of every idea that comes into your head), clustering (like listing, but use lines and circles to connect related ideas), and freewriting (write as quickly as you can without worrying about punctuation, grammar, spelling, or even logic) can help you decide what to write about.  If you are required to keep a journal, check your journal for ideas.  We tend to write about things in our journals that are our passions.  What better place to begin?

    Try answering these questions from Donald Murray's The Craft of Revision to come up with topic ideas.

    For more information on getting started, visit St. Cloud State University's website.

    For a discussion of freewriting, visit MIT's Online Writing and Communication Center.

Researching    Back to top

    When we write, we are trying to express ideas, but if those ideas arenít based on information, the writing just doesnít work.  This is where research comes in.  And yes, by research we mean going to a library to find information from books and periodicals, but those arenít the only sources available.  Do a personal interview with someone who has some first hand experience with your topic.  Visit a place that relates to your topic and write down what you see and hear and learn.  And donít forget that you are also a valuable resource.  Take some time to consider what you already know and to really search your memory for details.

    Visit the John F. Kennedy University Libraries tip sheet, Researching a Topic in the Library.  This lists steps to help you begin the research process.

    You may visit the King's College Library on-line, but it is even better to visit the library in person.  Reference librarians are available to help you answer your research questions.

    Search government publications on-line through San Diego State University Library.

    For information on doing research on the internet, visit this area of Purdue University's On-Line Writing Lab.

    Once you find information on the internet, you must evaluate that information carefully to make sure it is a reliable source.  Begin by reading this handout written by Robert Harris.  You might also want to print an abbreviated tip sheet to keep handy for future reference.  There are many helpful exercises to practice your internet evaluation skills.

Outlining   Back to top

    When I hear the word ďoutline,Ē I immediately groan.  Memories of junior high come flooding back to meócorrect subordination, correct coordination, balance.  I could never figure out how to write outlines to my teacherís specifications and all the extra time I spent on them was wasted because formal outlines didnít help me.  But what does help me is creating an informal outline.  I always start with some kind of a road map, so I know where to go next each time I get lost.  Start by simply listing everything you want to cover in your essay.  Then take a few minutes to consider the best order for your ideas.  Maybe the last thing you thought of really belongs first and the first really should be last.  Number all those things and there you have itóa painless and quick outline that will work as the perfect safety net.

    A word of warning about outlines: do not become a slave to your outline.  Writing is about discovery.  We begin writing about the dog we had when we were ten and we end up finding out the essay is really about the first time we moved.  You donít know where youíre going when you get started, so have that road map in case you get lost, but donít be afraid to drive 20 miles out of the way to see a geyser. 

    Visit this site for an introduction to outlining.  This explains why we should write outlines and what an outline can do for us. 

    This area of Purdue University's On-Line Writing Lab provides detailed instructions for completing a formal outline.

    Finally, visit this site to read about alternatives to the formal outline that you may find helpful.

Writing the First Draft   Back to top

    When I started graduate school, my writing teacher told me to write first drafts that were rough and wild.  She said, ďThrow out a big net and pull in more than you need.Ē  I looked at her like she was nuts.  At the time, writing was exactly about control.  What separated me from other students who were not writers was my ability to pluck just the right sentence out of my brain without letting everything spill, without making mistakes.  I wrote tight little drafts of poems for that whole first semester and they were the most boring and predictable poems you would ever have the opportunity to read.  The point is that she was right.  Pull in more than you need.  You can always sort it out later when you have the fish on the boat.  Who knows?  Maybe youíll be able to find just the place for that old boot and want to keep it after all.  That probably would have never occurred to you in the early stages of your writing.

    So what do you do if writing that first draft seems like too difficult a task?  Start by just writing anything down.  Donít wait for the perfect opening sentence; donít try to write the best opening paragraph ever.  Just get words down to take the pressure off.  You can always rewrite this later.  And if youíre really feeling tense, try writing your essay in the form of a letter to a friend.  Itís much easier to explain things to someone who cares about you because you know you can say it any way you want.  You can always clean up your letter and turn it into an essay.

    Start here for suggestions on getting start from Toby Fulwiler's The Working Writer.

    Here are a few more tips for coping with first draft anxiety.

    Cuyahoga Community College's website provides first draft methods, tips, and suggestions as well as solutions to common first draft problems.  You can also learn more about drafting with a computer.

Revising    Back to top

    Most professional writers and students of writing will tell you the same thing about revision.  Writing the first draft may only take a writer an hour or two, but revising can take days and even months.  The real work when writing an essay is not the drafting.  What weíre really doing is revising.

    What is revision?  Revision is not editing and it is not proofreading.  Revision is much more radical work.  When we revise, we re-see our work.  We may find that the thing we really wanted to write about and focus on is on the last page of our first draft.  When we revise, we find that focus, kick it up to the beginning of our paper, and examine each paragraph to make sure it supports that main idea in some way.  In this stage of the game, we delete whole paragraphs, we add paragraphs, and we may even find that we need to do more research and find new pieces of information.  Nothing is set in stone.  The ability to revise is what separates unsuccessful writers from successful writers.

    At this point you might be rolling your eyes.  Iím a strong writer, you say.  I do just fine without revising.  Iíve written some great papers that I didnít have to touch.  Yes, sometimes we do write something that doesnít need revision, but those gifts donít come to us very often and theyíre not really gifts.  Those perfect-right-off-the-bat essays are essays that youíve already practiced without really knowing it.  Maybe it takes ideas you had for a psychology paper and applies them to a short story youíre reading in literature class or maybe your mind has been rehearsing this paper somewhere deep in your subconscious.  But these gifts donít come very often and writing assignments do and will come often throughout your college life and work life.  Learning that revision is a natural part of the process makes sitting down to write the first draft a little less painful.

    To learn about Higher Order Concerns and Later Order Concerns, visit this area of Purdue University's On-Line Writing Lab.  You will also find a few questions to ask yourself about your draft.

    Outlining isn't just helpful before the first draft.  Outlining can help us revise as well.  Learn more about using outlining during the revision process.

    Visit this site to find a list of revising and editing questions.

Editing    Back to top

    Do you read your writing out loud to hear how it sounds?  If you do, you probably already understand editing.  Editing it is when we check our sentences.  This is when we make sure we use concepts like parallel structure when constructing lists and transitions to move us from paragraph to paragraph.  We make sure that the words we use convey the desired meaning.  We listen to sound.  Do we use all short sentences or all long sentences or do we provide a nice variety?  Does every sentence use a conjunction?  If so, we have a problem and need to vary our sentence structure.  Sound isnít only important when we talk about poems and fiction writing.  Sound can serve our ideas in an essay and it can make the reader stick with the reading or stop reading altogether; however, a pleasing musical quality to your writing wonít do you any good without good ideas and strong evidence.

    Start here and learn more about editing.  You will find tips, common errors, and instructions for editing with a computer.

    The Elements of Style is still one of most used style guides.  This book covers both grammar and style rules, and the entire text is on-line for easy reference.

Proofreading    Back to top

    This is the final step in the process, but that doesnít mean we can skip it.  Proofreading, as you probably already know, is doing the last sweep of your draft to check for spelling, grammar, and typographical errors.  A good way to proofread is by reading your writing out loud.  We can often catch missed commas, incorrect punctuation, and countless other errors this way.  Itís also a good idea to ask a friend who is good with proofreading to read over your draft to find something you may miss.  Why go through all this trouble?  Because if your writing is not error-free, it doesnít matter how exciting and important your ideas are or how moving your stories are, the reader will either stop reading because you were not courteous enough to make the job of reading easier or the reader will discount your ideas because he or she doubts your credibility.

    You should save this task for the very end for two important reasons.  First of all, you might end up cutting a section that you carefully proofread and you would have wasted time doing the work.  Second, if you clean up those sentences too much in the early stages, it will be harder to be ruthless and cut them out later.  When our writing sounds and looks perfect, we become too attached to it and itís hard to cut out good writing even if it has nothing to do with our main idea.

    To find out more information on grammar and punctuation rules, visit Purdue University's On-Line Writing Lab.

Teachers Talk About Process    Back to top

    Think only students struggle with their writing?  Visit the sites below to read what teachers from King's College and from other colleges have to say about their writing processes.

    Teachers Talk About Their Writing

    King's Faculty Talk About Their Writing