A Few Thoughts on The Writing Process
University Writing Program--Workshops
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:
- if a last-minute effort gets a good grade, either I'm more
brilliant than I thought, or the grader is a bozo;
- if a last-minute effort gets a bad grade either the grader is a bozo (a mean bozo at that), or I could've / should've / would've done better, if I'd only put in a bit more time.
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 any term paper.
The writing process is iterative--a series of recursive steps and
stages--and consists of the following 5 major phases:
- Free writing - generating ideas.
- Drafting - spewing out text without worrying about grammatical or stylistic niceties.
- Revising - re-reading and re-thinking the paper, at idea and paragraph level
- Editing - making sentence-level and paragraph-level changes from the revision
- 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:
- In practice, writing is a messy, non-linear process.
- These "steps" blur into each other and feed back on each other.
- Most people who have trouble writing spend too much time editing and polishing before generating enough raw material.
- Good writers ruthlessly edit, lopping off chunks and trying out different combinations before settling on a good one.
- 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 are worth keeping in mind, even if
they sound a little like PE-teacher truisms:
- "Don't get it right, get it written." (H.L. Mencken)
- "Just about anything is pretty impossible, if you try to do it
perfectly the first time." (Dr. Jeff Watts)
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. Whether your assignment does it for you explicitly or not, you have to break down any general question into a bunch of specific, analytical sub-questions, from which you can extract the body of your essay.
Summary and Parting Shots:
- Cause and effect analysis
- Process analysis
- Categorization / classification
- Comparison and contrast
- Argumentation (often includes / subsumes categories from
- start early, don't wait until you're "ready"
- carefully generate questions and responses from the
- turn off your internal editors that might block your
progress. You can even try turning down the screen brightness to keep yourself from excessive second-guessing
- generate some text to massage and work with
- don't worry if your "outline" starts to look like a TV football telestrator diagram
- recognize that spell-checkers and grammar checkers are not foolproof tools
- don't try to do all your editing on a screen! print out double-spaced draft, and use scissors and scotch tape to manipulate physical chunks of text, turning this into a craft project and harnessing your spatial sense to organize thoughts
- read your prose aloud to a friend--or better yet, have the friend read it back to you, with all your (mis)punctuation
- above all, recognize that writing is a craft, not a divine
gift, and that you can and will get better at it!
- Mightier than the Sword, Powerful Writing In The Legal Profession, by C. Edward Good (most of this book is an excellent and readable introduction to developing a stronger prose style).
- I've also found it useful to get students to engage more fully with about their thinking process itself--and created this handout on critical thinking to help.