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 product, thus:

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 a small group: read as believers and doubters. Use expressive writing (idea log, free-writing, and idea-mapping) to plan your ideas.

Write a 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, and format.

Brainstorming - try this activity

  • What type of paper have you been asked you to write? Describe the assignment in your own words:
  • Were any additional specific requirements emphasized 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).

Paper content

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, at least one sentence should state 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 your writing? Then each time you make a claim or generalization, you should provide data and examples to support that statement. Have you provided the 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 the point above, 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 are addressing
  • 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.

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.

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 further support.
  • Write a preliminary statement that 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 into paragraphs.

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?

Organization: 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.

Writing style

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 field.

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.