John Stenzel
Campus Writing Center

A Few Thoughts on The Writing Process

This is a slightly modified version of a workshop I do on the writing process for ECS 15 (Intro to Computers) classes. The extended example is specific to that class' assignment, but the strategies I describe apply more generally. I hope some of this proves useful.

Introduction: Procrastination

Writing is too important to be left until the night before it's due, but a few facts about the psychology of procrastination can help us overcome this tendency. Most of us procrastinate about writing because we associate it with negative comments and red ink. We don't want to risk real failure, so we sabotage ourselves just a little, leaving us with a perfect insurance policy:

What I hope to do today in this workshop is give you some tools for allocating your time more effectively, show you some of the ways professional writers overcome various writing hurdles, and offer a suggestion for organizing your research and writing efforts on a term paper (in this case, for ECS). If you want to, you can still pretend you did your paper the night before.

The Process

The writing process is iterative--a series of recursive steps and stages--and consists of the following 5 major phases:

  1. Free writing - generating ideas.
  2. Drafting - spewing out text without worrying about grammatical or stylistic niceties.
  3. Revising - re-reading and re-thinking the paper, at idea and paragraph level
  4. Editing - making sentence-level and paragraph-level changes from the revision stage.
  5. Polishing - modifying the format as required, checking spelling, correcting grammar, and smoothing out punctuation.

Note that this scheme has some serious limitations you should keep in mind whenever you think about actual writing, as opposed to neat little schemes or theoretical constructs for writing:

  1. In practice, writing is a messy, non-linear process.
  2. These "steps" blur into each other and feed back on each other.
  3. Most people who have trouble writing spend too much time editing and polishing before generating enough raw material.
  4. Good writers ruthlessly edit their product, lopping off chunks and trying out different combinations before settling on a good one.
  5. Good students include the assignment itself in their looping process, making sure they re-read and re-visit the assignment at several points in their process.

Hence, the following aphorisms are worth keeping in mind, even if they sound a little like the kind of truisms that PE teachers used to bore you with:

Writing Modes

Professional writers don't try to invent the wheel each time they set out. They have a whole set of what theorists call "Rhetorical Modes" in their tool box, templates to help guide various types of expository writing tasks. What are these modes of writing?

These modes provide means of organizing or structuring essays, but they also should make you conscious of what you are doing in particular sections of a larger whole. Some paragraphs will be descriptive, then you will compare what you know to something you don't know, analyze the reasons for these differences, and discuss the X different ways these differences are significant. Recognizing that sophisticated writing demands clean control of different modes, you can reduce the amount of time you spend spinning your wheels aimlessly.

For ECS 15 term papers, the general topic is "How are computers used in some field of interest to you?" The key strategy here is to be concrete, to think in terms of what a person does in your field, so that you won't be talking about abstract ideas with no human reference. You have to break down that general question into a bunch of specific, analytical sub-questions, from which you can extract the body of your essay.

You may find it useful to organize your thoughts in a table or matrix with rows labeled "Before computers" and "With computers" and columns heading up the tasks that a person wants to perform in the field you are writing about.

Sample Organization and Development

For example, if you were doing your paper on the ways this English instructor goes about his job, your tasks might include the following headings: Compose assignments; Communicate with students; Write comments; Compute Grades. Note that this constitutes a classification scheme (see Modes discussion above), and within each of these subheadings you would describe and narrate and analyze process.

You could learn a whole lot about all this by interviewing a practitioner in your field; here's what you might learn from me:

Before computers, I composed with pencil and paper, then transferred my work to a typewriter (one of those heavy bulky keyboard devices with no screen), then made a ditto master, and so on. If I made a mistake, I was in trouble, since scraping off ditto-master gels was time-consuming and messy. With computers, I compose on screen, revise constantly, and correct right up until the moment I print out and photocopy.

Communicating with students used to be a combination of "stampede to the front of the class for a minute of quality time," office hours (often inconvenient, sometimes with a line of other students), phone (risky) or note (too formal). Now, with e-mail and newsgroups, students can compose a message any time day or night, send it from home or lab, and receive a response the next time I check my e-mail. This can occur from my office or my home in Berkeley; with Eudora on a laptop computer I can download my messages before leaving the house, check them and queue up responses while riding the train to Davis, and send the queued messages when I reach my office. Class newsgroups afford another extension of class time for clarification or class materials, group work, and paper feedback.

Grade computation I used to do by hand, (and possibly with a calculator); if I wanted to weight certain quizzes or exams or papers more heavily than others, the calculations could get quite tedious and complex.. With an Excel spreadsheet or a special purpose grading program the whole process can be a lot less labor-intensive (once you get through the learning curve!).

You should be able to see how filling in the spaces on that grid or matrix could not only provide lots of good material for concrete development, the process could also suggest ways to link ideas together: electronic communication also spills over into research efforts, word-processing also aids my paper commenting process, and so on.


Parting shots:

Recommended reading: Mightier than the Sword, Powerful Writing In the Legal Profession, by C. Edward Good. Word Store, Charlottesville VA, 1989. (available in the campus bookstore).

Good luck.

Slightly revised 10/2000