We might not think much about our process for creating text, but each of us has cultivated our own methods since we could hold a crayon. Writing is steeped in so much of what we do, especially our digital world of social media, instant messaging, email, and texting.
Our ability to share what we write to anyone with an Internet connection and computer device is quite remarkable. Even though it might not seem like writing, each of the little “masterpieces” we create and then share with the click of a send or publish button celebrates how far we have come from the days of publishing with the printing press.
Unfortunately, many students would admit they do not enjoy academic writing—and some would even say they hate it! But you have many more college papers left to write, and likely will continue writing beyond college and into the workplace. There are strategies that can help you improve your academic writing skills and this chapter will explore the processes proficient writers use to develop academic writing. You may even find some joy in it!
The writing process is different for every person and for every writing type, but there are common steps that are important to practice.
Generally, the writing process consists of:
Selecting a Topic: The instructor may provide students with a topic, or the instructor may ask students to choose a topic.
Prewriting: Before writing a draft, writers use a planning process that includes strategies such as mindmapping, brainstorming, and freewriting.
Organizing: It is also important to develop a logical order of ideas.
Drafting: When writers create a draft of the paper, they demonstrate the recursive nature of writing. Recursive means reoccurring or repeating. The writing process is recursive because a writer may return to prewriting and organizing while developing a draft of the text.
Revising and Editing: Writers use reorganizing, proofreading, and other strategies to strengthen a draft as well as conform to Standard English and style formatting, such as MLA and APA, for most academic writing.
Publishing: Finally, writers share or submit the final version.
9.1 Choosing a Topic
In addition to understanding that writing is a process, writers also understand that choosing a good general topic for an assignment is an essential step. Sometimes your instructor will give you an idea to begin an assignment, and other times your instructor will ask you to come up with a topic on your own. A good topic not only covers what an assignment will be about but also fits the assignment’s purpose and its audience.
When selecting a topic, you may also want to consider something that interests you or something based on your own life and personal experiences. Even everyday observations can lead to interesting topics. After writers think about their experiences and observations, they often take notes on paper to better develop their thoughts. These notes help writers discover what they have to say about their topic.
Reading plays a vital role in all the stages of the writing process, but it first figures in the development of ideas and topics. Different kinds of documents can help you choose a topic and also develop that topic. For example, a magazine advertising the latest research on the threat of global warming may catch your eye in the supermarket. This cover may interest you, and you may consider global warming as a topic. Or maybe a novel’s courtroom drama sparks your curiosity of a particular lawsuit or legal controversy.
After you choose a topic, critical reading is essential to the development of a topic. While reading almost any document, you evaluate the author’s point of view by thinking about his main idea and his support. When you judge the author’s argument, you discover more about not only the author’s opinion but also your own. If this step already seems daunting, remember that even the best writers need to use prewriting strategies to generate ideas.
It is important to narrow the focus of you writing so that your assignment will be manageable. Narrowing the focus means breaking up the topic into subtopics, or more specific points. Generating lots of subtopics will help you eventually select the ones that fit the assignment and appeal to you and your audience.
Many students see prewriting as a waste of time and jump right into drafting. However, when you skip over the first steps of writing and move straight to drafting, the process of writing may take much more time.
Proficient writers know prewriting is important because it allows you to generate ideas to frame your thinking and provide a broad range of content.
Spending time planning your writing will ensure that the best of your ideas come together in a cohesive way. This will also make the drafting and revising process easier and result in a higher quality finished piece.
Here are three prewriting strategies you may find helpful:
Strategy 1: Brainstorming
Brainstorming is a technique of listing as many ideas as possible about your writing topic. The greatest rule of brainstorming is to keep the process as broad and open as possible. Review the video below about how to brainstorm.
When working on group assignments or problem-solving, you might explore these brainstorming techniques:
There are some tips to keep in mind while brainstorming:
Do not censor. No criticism, judgment or analysis of ideas should occur while brainstorming.
Quirky or off-the-wall ideas can be helpful. They may trigger other ideas that may end up being useful and more practical.
Do not concern yourself with organizing ideas. Focusing and organizing ideas will come later.
Give yourself time. Even if there is a lull or break in generating new ideas, give the process time. Sometimes the brain needs time to “percolate.”
Here is an example of some ideas generated around the topic of depression:
Strategy 2: Mindmapping
Mindmapping (or concept mapping) is similar to brainstorming, but it is much more visual. It allows you to create connections between ideas. It can be a useful step after brainstorming, or it may match your style better if brainstorming seems too random.
Strategy 3: Freewriting
Freewriting is a process of simply writing. When writers freewrite, they write whatever comes to mind without worrying about spelling or grammar. Freewriting helps you get started and can expand your thinking.
After prewriting, you will want to develop an initial draft that starts the writing. With this draft, you just want to aim to get some ideas down, not worry about spelling or grammar, and begin to organize your thoughts on paper. This is a time for developing your thinking.
Once you develop this draft, take some time to reflect about the organization of your ideas by asking the following questions:
How logical is my writing?
Are there any gaps in the development of ideas?
Is there repetition?
Does the paper flow easily?
Although we have started our approach to writing as a process of stages, writing is not a linear or fixed method. Proficient writers would argue that writing is recursive in nature, which means it is not a series of steps, but instead a means of revisiting and reworking what you have written until you reach an end point…although this end may likely elude perfection! Debating if any writing is ever “perfect” is another conversation in itself. For the purposes of academic writing, your goal might not be perfection, but it most certainly is completion.
The Recursive Nature of Writing
Drafting can be thought of as your work through the recursiveness of the writing process. It is essential to the organization and flow of your paper. Once your general ideas are developed from the prewriting, initial draft, and outline, writing out specific ideas and quotations can make the final writing process much easier. Each draft brings your writing process a little closer to the final product.
It is difficult for instructors to give a grade for drafting because it is not as easy as grading draft one and draft two. Drafting is likely the most under-appreciated aspect of writing because it is how you reveal to your writing self your progress from thoughts to the final paper. Proficient writers would also argue this is the most exciting and daunting stage of writing because it is where the writer struggles with their work . . . but in a good way.
Always write down any ideas you have in the drafting process. It is much easier to cut content from your paper than it is to work on adding content. If you collect all your resources, quotations, facts, ideas, and come up with your main point during the drafting process, your paper will show it. The idea is to provide yourself with as much information as possible in order to create a solid and well thought-out piece. Do less worrying and more writing.
Revising, Editing, Proofreading
Drafting also concerns revising, editing, and proofreading.
Revising, for many writers and teachers of writing, is the critical step in any writing process. It is the step that often frustrates many writers because it can be tedious and tiresome to pay such close attention to details that might become lost or unrecognizable in the repeated examination of what one has written.
Many writers at this stage find it beneficial to have someone else read a document that is too close to the writer’s controlling thoughts and frayed emotions. The intellectual and emotional investment into one’s writing is typically the reason why many emotionally developing students accuse an English teacher of disliking the student when the teacher critiques or grades an assignment.
The need to revise undeniably acknowledges that one’s writing is not perfect as presented in the latest draft. One’s willingness to revise means that the writer recognizes the dynamic nature of communication, which requires revisions in order to clearly articulate ideas and meet the expectations of the audience. Effective written expression is the result of careful revisions.
Revising is done throughout the writing process, with special emphasis on the first few drafts.
When revising, focus on the big issues first such as:
Seeking Input from Others
College writers have many potential opportunities to seek out feedback on their work, at any stage of the writing process. For instance, your college’s Writing Center or Tutoring Center would be happy to work with you on prewriting, early drafts, or nearly finished drafts.
Friends or family members might also be good options for feedback, if you trust that they will be genuine and helpful with their input.
You will likely also have the opportunity to participate in peer review for many courses that require writing assignments.
Instructors teaching a writing-intensive course, or any course that requires students to produce a substantial amount of writing, should consider creating opportunities for students to read and respond to one another’s writing. Such opportunities to engage in “peer review,” when well planned, can help students improve their reading and writing skills and learn how to collaborate effectively.
More specifically, participating in peer review can help students:
Learn how to read carefully, with attention to the details of a piece of writing (whether their own or another writer’s);
Learn how to strengthen their writing by taking into account the responses of actual and anticipated readers;
Make the transition from writing primarily for themselves or for an instructor to writing for a broader audience–a key transition for students as they learn to write university-level papers and as they prepare for post-graduate work;
Learn how to formulate and communicate constructive feedback on a peer’s work;
Learn how to gather and respond to feedback on their own work.
Watch this video to learn more about peer review:
Challenges in the Peer Review Process
Many instructors who have incorporated peer review into their courses report less than satisfying results. In fact, it is quite common to find that, when asked to participate in peer review, students rush through the peer-review process and offer their peers only vaguely positive comments, such as “I liked your paper,” or “Good job,” or “Good paper, but a few parts need more work.” Furthermore, many students seem to ignore peer-reviewers’ comments on their writing.
There are several possible reasons behind such responses:
Many students feel uncomfortable with the task of having to pronounce a judgment on their peers’ writing. This discomfort may be the result of their maturity level, their desire not to hurt a peer’s feelings (perhaps made more acute by the fact that they are anxious about having their peers read and judge their own writing), or simply their inexperience with providing constructive criticism on a peer’s work. A vaguely positive response allows them to avoid a socially uncomfortable situation and to create an environment of mutual support (Nilson 2003).
If students are not given clear guidance from their instructors, they may not know how to comment on one another’s writing in a specific and constructive way. In addition, it should be noted that students may not understand how to comment on their peers’ writing because over the years they have not received helpful feedback from instructors who have graded their papers. (For suggestions on how to write specific comments that can help students improve their writing, see the handout, “Commenting on Student Writing“).
Some instructors ask their students to evaluate their peers’ writing using the same criteria the instructor uses when grading papers (e.g., quality of thesis, adequacy of support, coherence, etc.).Undergraduate students often have an inadequate understanding of these criteria, and as a result, they either ignore or inappropriately apply such criteria during peer-review sessions (Nilson 2003).
Many students do not perceive feedback from peers as relevant to the process of writing a paper for a course. Especially at the beginning of their undergraduate work, students are likely to assume that it is only the instructor’s feedback that “counts.”
Even when they take seriously feedback provided by their peers, students often do not know how to incorporate that feedback when they revise their papers.
Responding to Input from Others
As an author, you may dread receiving reviewer comments asking for major revisions. It’s daunting to rework something for which you have already taken great pains. But don’t be tempted to give up. Most often, the final outcome is worth the effort. Here are some pointers on how to respond to such comments.
Take a break: Initial irritation is only natural. Take time off and then read the comments again carefully and objectively to ensure that you have clearly understood the reviewers’ concerns.
Articulate point-by-point responses: Number the reviewers’ points and respond to them sequentially. If you’re required to respond to your reviewers, this makes it easier for others to follow what you have done. Even if your reviewers never see your responses, this is an effective way to inventory their advice and make sure that you’ve evaluated all of it.
Create well-reasoned responses to input: If you do not agree with a reviewer’s comment, that’s only fair. However, do not simply disagree. Justify this disagreement, to yourself or to the reviewer, by providing as many details as necessary to help any reader understand your line of reasoning. Where possible, cite published studies to support your argument.
Pay attention to detail: Details are important when explaining how you have addressed each concern. For example, if a reviewer has said that you need to include/reinterpret data, you can describe the tests you performed and the results you got and mention where you have added this information.
Watch your tone: Remember, the reviewers are critiquing your work, not you. Do not let their feedback color any future interactions you have with them. If you disagree on some point, say so honestly but respectfully, and support your statement with a rational explanation.
Appreciate the reviewers’ work: Peer reviewers invest their own time in reviewing your writing. Their intention is to help you improve your writing, and hopefully earn higher grades as a result. Take advantage of their advice. In fact, a long list of detailed reviewer comments usually means that reviewer has spent considerable time evaluating your work and providing constructive feedback. Be sure to thank reviewers for their consideration and effort.
Editing is done throughout the writing process, with special emphasis on the middle and final drafts.
When editing, focus on the technical issues:
Many students assume—or fear—that college writing is judged primarily on its grammatical correctness. Ideas, evidence, and arguments matter more than the mechanics of grammar and punctuation; however, many of the rules of formal writing exist to promote clarity and precision which writers much achieve in order to effectively convey ideas, evidence, and arguments. In addition, texts that observe the rules of formal written English tend to be more persuasive by making the author appear well informed and careful. Writing replete with errors does not make a great impression, and most educators want to help students present themselves well. Correctness, then, isn’t the most important thing, but it does matter.
Another common assumption among students is that one is either good at grammar or not good at grammar, and that such is one’s immutable fate. This is not true. Once you master a particular rule or practice, it becomes second nature, and then you can focus your attention on mastering another. Even people who write formally for a living, like your professors, still look things up in a writing handbook from time to time. You can master the practices of formal written English, and college is a great time to use the feedback from your professors to identify your common errors and learn to correct them.
Proofreading is used for the final draft. When proofreading, focus on mechanics and presentation:
Watch the following video to learn more about proofreading:
Licenses and Attributions
CC Licensed Content, Shared Previously:
Introduction to chapter 9 and 9.3 were adapted from Developmental Writing authored by Elisabeth Ellington and Ronda Dorsey Neugebauer, provided by: Chadron State College. Project: Kaleidoscope Open Course Initiative. License: CC BY: Attribution