The Writing Process
By Michael Becker
The Writing Process
Writing is both a product (the thesis, dissertation, or paper you intend to turn in) and the process you use to create that product. Student writers, however, often focus so hard on the finished product that they forget the process, which is unfortunate. The tyranny of the finished product replaces the joy of discovery that accompanies the writing process.
It doesn’t have to be this way. This document provides a refresher on the writing process (or an introduction to those of you who have never heard of the writing process before). Keep the process in mind, and you’ll never get stuck or lost in a long writing project again. And, most importantly deadlines will hold less power over you because you will face those deadlines well prepared.
A note before getting started: I break the writing process into six steps: brainstorming, organizing, outlining, drafting, revising, and proofreading. Other people divide the process differently. If you search the Web for the writing process, you’ll find the stages under different names, but the idea behind the process will be basically the same.
This first step helps at two times, when you’re generating a thesis statement and after you’ve got your thesis statement and are looking for ideas for the paper itself. Basically, you write down as many ideas as you can. Don’t worry about whether they’re related to your topic; you’ll sort out the unrelated items later. For now, generate a mass of content that you can work with.
Practical tips: Start a new word processor file and just type. Put new ideas on a new line. Keep things short and move on quickly. Don’t second-guess yourself or go back to delete. You can also do this on paper, note cards, or even a typewriter (if you happen to have one of those).
Another approach: stream-of-consciousness writing. Set a timer for, say, 10 minutes. Then sit down and start typing sentences, anything that comes to mind about your subject. Just don’t stop, not for anything. This activity primes the pump of words; so even if you run out of ideas, don’t stop typing. Trust that your mind will wend its way back around to the subject.
Once you have completed your brainstorm, you’ll be left with a mess of ideas that came from a number of sources and tend in a number of directions. This is the time for organization.
Wheat from the Chaff — In the organization stage, you must separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Look through your ideas with a paper-wide perspective. Determine which notes and ideas have absolutely nothing to do with your chosen topic and put those aside (but don’t throw them away; they might just become useful later).
Further Refinement — Now that all the ideas in your stack have something to do with your paper’s topic, it’s time to refine them. The first step is to sort them into piles (or if you’re working on a computer files) to keep them separate. For example, if you’re working on Shakespeare’s comedies as your general topic, you might want to separate your ideas into piles by play.
Grouped by Subject — As you might have guessed, the next step really just takes the refinement a step further. You now take the stacks or groups of ideas you’ve made and separate them into individual topics–topics that could possibly become paragraphs in the drafting process.
Last Note — The important thing to remember about this organization process is to never throw any of the ideas away or delete them completely from the computer. Paper topics are like living things: they change and evolve. You never know when an idea might suddenly become relevant to the paper again. So if you’re doing your organization with note cards, hold onto the ones that don’t fit. If you’re organizing on computer, throw all the spare ideas into a separate file. Just make sure they don’t wind up in the trash.
Outlines are like blueprints. They represent a plan, a direction. They bestow confidence on the writer, because you know that someone somewhere had a plan and decided to put that plan into writing for you to follow. The problem, though, is that you are both the â€œarchitectâ€ and the â€œbuilderâ€ of your paper. There is, sadly, no one waiting to draft your outline for you.
But, if youâ€™ve taken the time to craft a workable thesis or dissertation topic, gone through the brainstorming process, and spent some time organizing your ideas in to manageable groups, then writing the outline will not be difficult.
What is an Outline? — This is the hardest thing to describe, because for those who have been introduced to the concept of outlines, forming oneâ€™s almost as easy as breathing.
For those completely unfamiliar with outlines, it is enough to know that an outline is a hierarchical way of organizing ideas. Usually, they are organized with numbered or lettered headings. Subheadings are indented to show that they are subordinate to the ideas that come above them. An outlineâ€™s headings (ideally) come in the same order as the concepts will appear in the paper.
Why use an Outline? — The benefits of using outlines come from the ability to look at a paperâ€™s major ideas at a glance. This layout makes it very easy to see if the order of ideas and concepts is (for lack of a better word) logical. If you are missing some connective material or ideas that help the reader get from point A to point B, the outline will help you see it.
An outline also helps you see how much material youâ€™ve amassed under each heading, which then lets you see whether each section has an appropriate amount of research and support. For example, if one section of your outline is drastically shorter than all the others, that section might be a candidate for further research (or even deletion, in some cases).
Last Words — An outline can be an invaluable tool throughout the drafting process. In fact, some writers (myself included) like to draft directly from the outline, typing its general ideas and sentence fragments into full sentences and paragraphs before cutting/pasting them into a new document.
Drafting (Actually Writing the Thing)
You sit down and write it.
Worried? Well, you have a right to be. Iâ€™ve made it sound far easier than it actually is, havenâ€™t I? Isnâ€™t there something missing, like all the anguished hours in front of the keyboard, looking for the right word, massaging your sentences so they make sense?
No, not in the drafting stage! In the drafting stage, all you worry about is putting words to paper (or screen). You donâ€™t worry about grammar, spelling, sentence structure, or readability. You just get it all out there.
Okay, How? — In the drafting stage, if youâ€™ve managed to divorce yourself from the paralyzing worry about grammar and all those other nitpicky things, the largest concern becomes time management.
Find a system that works for you, whether that means getting up an hour early every day to write or setting aside specific times throughout the day to write. Whatever you do, find time to work on your project every day because this is the easiest stage in which to procrastinate. And deadlines have a way of creeping up quietly.
Butâ€¦ — Okay, thereâ€™s something of a catch to drafting. Some writers have a tendency to think that, if youâ€™ve done enough pre-writing and planning, the draft will write itself without any problems whatsoever.
As Kate Turabian points out in A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, this ignores the value of drafting as a process of discovery. â€œIndeed,â€ she writes, â€œyou experience one of the most exciting moments in research when you discover yourself expressing ideas that you did not know you had until that momentâ€ (71). Author E.M. Forster put it another way: â€œHow can I know what I think until I see what I say?â€
Donâ€™t think that drafting is automatic. Do think that it is something to do smoothly and without too much concern about the particulars of language.
So youâ€™ve got a paper to work with, now itâ€™s time to polish it into something youâ€™re proud to turn in.
When I used to teach this step to college freshmen in composition class, I made a point of saying that it should take longer than all the other steps combined. For a thesis or dissertation, that certainly doesnâ€™t hold true, especially for those whoâ€™ve spent the past two years in a lab or in the field gathering data. However, revising should still take considerably longer than drafting.
How is that possible? Well, if you didnâ€™t focus on grammar and the minutiae of writing when you put the draft together, then youâ€™ve probably got quite a mess on your hands: sentences that donâ€™t fit together, ideas that trail off into nothingness, missing citations, notes to yourself, new ideas that need more work, sections you found that didnâ€™t really workâ€¦ The revision process is where you iron all this out, and it is the step when you are most likely to search out the help of someone like a graduate writing tutor.
What Should I Look For?
- Missing content
- Efficient and logical paragraph order
- Extra words, spots where you can simplify
- Word choice (i.e. Do you really want to say â€œliftâ€ when you mean â€œelevatorâ€?)
- Tone, making sure the paper â€œsoundsâ€ the way you want it to
- Check on your introduction, thesis statement, and conclusion
- Streamline the keywords and terms that run through the document
- Clearly mark sections and chapters
- Make sure each section or chapter relates to the one that came before (by use of transition words, sentences, or paragraphs)
- Each part of the paper should contribute to the paperâ€™s â€œmission.â€ When in doubt, ask yourself: What is this sentence/paragraph/section/chapter doing for my paper as a whole?
Most importantly, after youâ€™ve been on this project for hours and hours, day after day, walk away for a while. Get some distance from the paper and come back to it with fresh eyes.
When you come back to the document, try paraphrasing it. By that, I mean take the first few sentences of each section or paragraph and create a summary out of them, paraphrasing your own words. Does that paraphrase â€œhang togetherâ€? If not, more revisions might be in order.
Now, finally, itâ€™s time to proofread your thesis or dissertation and find those nasty mechanical and grammatical errors. These include punctuation, typos, spelling, formatting, and any other details.
Having a process to follow bestows confidence. It helps you know that someone somewhere has been through your situation before and has survived or at least finished her project. The process can give you a direction to go if you’re lost and can reassure you if you’re struggling.
About the author: Lauren Cerretti is the Graduate Writing Tutor at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.