The Writing Process
Writing essays and research papers can be a nerve-wracking
experience for many students. One way to make writing assignments less
intimidating (and less likely to be put off) is to introduce the idea
that writing is a 'process'. The best of writers must revise many times,
moving their prose through numerous stages before they reach a finished
- Starting Point: Brainstorm on problems and issues you would like
to examine that might fit the assignment.
- Exploration and Rehearsal: Talk about your ideas in small group:
read as believers and doubters. Use expressive writing (idea log, freewriting,
idea-mapping) to plan your ideas.
- Write Discovery Draft: Write like the wind, focusing on getting
your ideas clear on paper. Forget about grammar and mechanics for now.
- Revision or "Seeing Again": Look with fresh eyes on your draft,
focusing on the organization, unity, and coherence of your arguments.
This is a good time for seeking outside advice.
- Editing: Polish your draft by scrutinizing the content,
clarity, and precision of your prose. This is also the time to focus on
surface features, such as grammar, spelling, punctuation, format
Brainstorming - try this activity
- What type of paper has your instructor asked you to write? Describe
the assignment in your own words:
- Did your instructor emphasize any additional specific requirements
for this paper?
- As spontaneously as you can, try listing some topics that you
might be interested in writing about (you need not use complete sentences
or even complete ideas).
When your instructor comments on the organization of your writing,
here are some things to consider as possible sources of problems:
- Clear Statement of Purpose: Have you made it clear what
you are trying to accomplish in this assignment? Somewhere near the
beginning there should be at least one sentence that states your purpose.
Can you find it? How easily? Maybe you need to make it stand out more from
the rest of the writing.
- Accurate Information: Do you have all your facts straight and
accurate? Can you document those facts? Have you included all the appropriate
footnotes and references? Recheck what you have said about an idea if the
instructor questions your information. You may have misinterpreted the
original or confused it with something else.
- Correct Analysis: Is the position you're taking one which is
justified by the evidence you present? Are you making any logical leaps
which are not based on the information you're providing? Write out your
analysis in one or two paragraphs without the evidence to see if the ideas
make sense by themselves.
- Points Made and Supported: This is one of the most common errors
students make in writing assignments. First, the points you want to make
should be just as clearly stated as your original statement of purpose. Can
you find those points in the midst of your writing? Then each time you make a
claim or generalization, you should provide data and examples to support
that statement. Have you provided that support for each main point?
- Logical Sequence of Ideas: Your sequence of points should build
to a "therefore" statement near the end of the assignment. As in point 3,
write out just the statements of main points and read them to see if they
flow logically. Examples of logical sequences are:
- From generalizations to the specific situation you
- From specific situations to an overall generalization
- One position on an issue, then a contrary position, then a
synthesis of the two
There are many other possibilities. Just be sure your writing has some
order to the sequence of points.
Transitions Between Ideas: If you have a nice sequence of main
points, you should highlight the logical movement of the argument from one
point to the next. This is done by having transitions between the points.
Transitions are phrases like "In the first place," "in the second place,"
"If...., then," "on the other hand." They are also logical transitions.
You can't simply launch into an argument without giving some hint as to how
it ties to the one before it and the one after it. Begin paragraphs with
sentences which tie the preceding thought to the one you are about to make.
For example, see the poem by
Good Opening and Closing: An old axiom for communication is
"tell them what you're going to tell them; tell them; and tell them what
you told them." The same applies to writing assignments. The opening should
catch the reader's attention and give him or her an idea about what the
paper is going to accomplish. Then you proceed with the body of the paper.
Finally, you have a big finish which wraps up all the main points and
reiterates the original statement of purpose. Both the opening and closing
should be written with powerful images that leave the reader feeling
energized and convinced of your brilliance.
Continuity: Ask yourself whether sentences and paragraphs flow
smoothly and logically. If necessary, tell your reader what point you're
discussing, what you'll talk about next. You may need to write some new
sections, transition sentences or whole paragraphs.
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Drafting - getting started
- Write down as much information and as many questions as you can
about your subject. Don't worry about how the ideas sound or look.
- Look for (circle) main ideas or sentences which contain main ideas.
- Make a list, grouping ideas that you think go together. Try several
different arrangements of your ideas.
- Read through your information and questions, looking for ideas and sentences
that will support the main ideas. Mark main ideas that need examples or
- Write a preliminary statement which explains what you are trying to
accomplish in the paper. This will become your thesis or claim, though it
may not fully take shape until you have written some of your paper.
Writing the Draft:
- Using the information and questions you have from step one and
other ideas you have had, start filling in the sections of your outline.
Focus on getting your ideas on the paper in some sort of order rather than
making each sentence sound good. Continue until you have written down some
ideas for each section.
- Read over what you have written so far. Is your outline working?
If not, try rearranging sections or ideas.
- Look at each of your sections. Separate each larger idea in each section
- Mark paragraphs that you think are underdeveloped or overdeveloped.
Can the overdeveloped ones be separated into two separate points? Can the
underdeveloped ones be combined or expanded? Can you tell from the length
of each paragraph which ideas are most important or central to your claim?
Read through only the topic sentences in your paper, or assemble these
into a second document on your word processor. Does each sentence follow
logically the one proceeding it? Do they form a reasonable mini-essay in
themselves? Do you like the sequence of ideas? Are similar ideas grouped
together? If necessary, move ideas -- whole paragraphs, sentences,
part of text -- around like blocks to improve organization.
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When your instructor comments on the writing style of your paper,
here are some things to consider as possible sources of problems:
- Appropriate for the Audience: Every time you write a paper,
you should have a clear idea of who the probable audience is. Different
audiences require you to use different styles. Some require a formal style;
some an informal style. Some audiences require more explanation of basic
concepts than others. A hostile audience will require more evidence and
logic than an audience which is already on your side. An informal audience
would call more for anecdotal evidence and personal color. Be sure you
match the type of style you use to the intended audience of the paper.
If you're not sure what that style is, check with your instructor.
Reading some of the literature in a given field will also give you an
idea of the style which is typical for that type of material.
- Clear and Concise: You should be able to state your point and
illustrate it with one or two examples or elaborations. You should also be
careful to say what you want in the fewest words necessary to convey the
full meaning. Don't digress too often or ramble. Think of what you would
like a professor to do in a lecture: be clear and concise, and then base
your own discussion on that model.
- Adequate Vocabulary: Every field has its technical terms.
Learn to use the ones appropriate to the paper you are writing and use
them correctly. Try to use variety in the words you choose, but be sure that
those words mean what you think they mean. Using "big words" incorrectly
is worse in most instructors' opinion than sticking to simpler words and
using them correctly.
- Mature Sentence Structure: Sentences can be short. Or they can
go on at great length with several prepositional phrases and modifiers
plus dependent clauses which interrupt the flow of thought until the
reader can't remember what the original purpose of the sentence was.
Neither type of sentence alone makes for mature sentence structure in
writing. You should strive for variety in sentence length and structure.
A few sentences in a row with the same structure (I came; I saw; I conquered)
can build a rhythm which will heighten the effectiveness of a series of
ideas, but too much parallel structure becomes boring. Sentences which are
very short will sound simplistic unless they are mixed in with more complex
sentences. Overly complex sentences, on the other hand, only make it hard
for the reader to follow your thinking.
- Voice: This is a technical term in writing which refers to the
overall style a writer uses. It includes the concepts of formal versus
informal writing, the active versus the passive voice, and past, present
and future tense. Each discipline has its own characteristic "voice" in
writing. The best way to develop an ear for the voice of your discipline
is to read the writing of professionals, such as in the journals or books
prominent in the field. Voice manifests itself in the word choice, the
sentence structure, the use of pronouns, the type of vocabulary and
several other less well-defined variables. It is sort of like speaking with
an accent; once you develop an ear for the voice of a discipline, you
start to write like a sociologist or a chemist or someone from any other
- Mechanics: There is no easy way to overcome problems of grammar,
punctuation and spelling. It takes simple hard work, patience and attention
to detail. On the other hand, with all the spelling and grammar checkers,
handbooks, and dictionaries available today, there is no reason for making
simple mechanical errors. In most cases it comes down to taking the time
to do it. The best suggestions for overcoming problems with mechanics are:
- Start writing early enough to give yourself time for proofreading
- Get a good dictionary and use it
- Stick to words you know and sentence structures you can punctuate
Remember that the way you present information has as much to do with the
impression it makes as the information itself. Don't let your message be
overcome by the medium.
Adopted, with permission, from the Undergraduate Writing Center
at the University of Texas at Austin.
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