John Stenzel
University Writing Program--Workshops

A Few Thoughts on The Writing Process

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 any term paper.

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, 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 are worth keeping in mind, even if they sound a little like PE-teacher truisms:

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. 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: Recommended reading: