Welcome to The Process of Writing: Seven steps to help you avoid writer’s block and create polished, professional prose.
In this brief tutorial, I will share a step-by-step process that will help you develop your ideas more thoroughly and alleviate any stress or anxiety you may have about writing in general. This process is most suitable for those writing an essay or an academic paper; however, this approach to writing can be applied to any genre.
Ok, let's get started!
The seven steps of the process are illustrated above: Brainstorm, Make a Plan, Draft, take a Break, do a Macro Review, take a Break, and do a Micro Review.
Although the steps are listed here along the arc from top to bottom, it is important to understand that this is not a linear process. More on that later...
First, let's talk about balance, the key to an effective writing process.
The process of writing is, essentially, a balancing act between creating new material and editing.
At certain points in the writing process you will have your “Creator” hat on, and at other times, you will have your “Editor” hat on. More often than not, when these two roles become confused, or when you try to play both roles at the same time, writing becomes an arduous task, full of stops and starts, and hair-pulling frustration.
This can be avoided by being mindful of which step of the process you are engaging.
For instance, when you are Brainstorming for ideas to write about, it is counterproductive to simultaneously edit for typos and punctuation. When you do this, you stop the generation of new ideas because you are focusing on the minutia. This, essentially, halts your thinking. For many writers, this is the point where writer's block begins. Reminding yourself that you have your Creator hat on and putting the Editor hat to the side can help you avoid a block from the beginning.
Reminding yourself that you have your Creator hat on and putting the Editor hat to the side can help you avoid a block from the beginning.
Alright, now that we understand the necessity of balance, let's take a closer look at the steps of the writing process.
The most important thing to remember about Brainstorming is that you will want to have your Creator “hat” on. The primary focus is on generating material and discovering your ideas.
There are countless ways to brainstorm ideas, some of them listed above. With free writing, for example, you put your pen to paper (or fingers on the keyboard) and write continuously, allowing your thoughts to unfold and deepen, without making any corrections. Again, without making any corrections. Let the words flow. For further explanation of free writing, see writer Natalie Goldberg's essay, "First Thoughts," from her well-known book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.
Similarly, journaling is a type of free writing that encourages you to write about a topic in relation to your personal experience. If you do not have a topic and you are brainstorming to discover a topic to write about, journaling is an excellent place to start as you can explore the themes in your lived experience that are important to you.
For some, free writing doesn't quite work so well. In cases such as those, I suggest mind mapping (see below). This technique is very well suited for visual learners since you create a visual diagram of your ideas.
Venn diagrams, too, are useful for providing a visual representation of your ideas. Using these diagrams for brainstorming does, however, require that you have already selected 2 or 3 topics to explore.
Creating a Venn diagram offers the opportunity to explore the similarities and differences between the pre-selected topics.
Here are a few generic examples of these diagrams. The first one is more straightforward with just two ideas.
The second example is a bit more complex exploring the relationship between three ideas.
No matter which brainstorming strategy you choose, the key point to remember is that this step is focused on generating and exploring ideas. Keep that Creator hat on!
Once you have generated some ideas, you move on to the next step: Make a Plan.
One of the biggest mistakes writers often make is that they skip this very important step; instead, they take the ideas generated while brainstorming, or their free writing, and consider that a draft of the finished product. Granted, that process may work for some writers, however, for the most part, it leads to unnecessary frustration. To avoid that situation for yourself, remember that it is very likely that not all of your words or ideas generated in the brainstorming stage are immediately relevant to the writing project at hand.
So, for Step 2, you will take off your Creator hat and put on your Editor hat. Take a look at the range of ideas you developed while brainstorming and sift through them—as if you were panning for gold—looking for the ideas that sparkle and shine with insight and relevance!
Then, looking at the ideas you’ve decided to more forward with, arrange them in some sort of logical order. The type of writing project you are working on will help you determine the most effective logical arrangement for your work. The variety of ways to arrange your writing is beyond the scope of this brief tutorial, but there are plenty of fantastic resources available online. My personal favorite is the OWL Purdue Online Writing Lab.
A common mistake at this stage is to develop an overly detailed outline then think that they have to stick with that plan no matter what. That is simply not so! Writing is a process of discovery, a process of developing your ideas. Our ideas will, undoubtedly, lead us into various directions and digressions as we develop and clarify them. This is a good thing!
So, let the plan you made at this step be your guide, but hold onto it loosely so that the process of writing can be an enjoyable and exciting learning experience. Writing does not have to be painful—just remember to balance your roles and be open to discovery.
With your plan in hand (which you are holding loosely!) it’s time for Step 3: Drafting. Take off that Editor hat and put on your Creator hat. Let’s write!
At this step, it’s important to start fresh. In other words, get a clean sheet of paper, or open a fresh new Word document. Your job here is to use the writing process as a means of clarifying your ideas for yourself (and ultimately, your reader).
In this way, the process of writing is all about asking questions: What is my point? What am I trying to say here? What do I mean by that? How is this idea related to the next idea? Do I have an example I can include that will illustrate my point? The questions are endless--that's part of the beauty of the creative moment!
Writing does not have to be painful—just remember to balance your roles and be open to discovery.
Understanding the avoiding the impulse to immediately correct your typos, punctuation, or other errors. And, wow, can it be tempting sometimes! You want to avoid correcting yourself for a few reasons:
1. At this stage you have your Creator hat on, not your Editor hat. Trying to wear both hats at the same time not only slows your progress, it slows your thinking and exponentially increases the chances of frustration. Often, when these roles are confused, people tend to feel "stuck" or "blocked." Who's got time for that?
2. You can fix the typos later. It's that simple. And, there's an entire step in the writing process dedicated to doing just that. Relax and create!
WARNING: DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP!
It doesn’t matter how much time you have—5 minutes or 5 days—be sure to take a break. Step away from your computer or notebook, rest your eyes, think of something else, take a walk, do whatever it takes to refresh yourself after all that hard work creating your draft.
The point of the break is to rest so that when you return to your work you have fresh eyes and can see your work more objectively.
After your break, it’s time to put on your Editor hat and roll up your sleeves for Step 5: Macro Review. The goal of this step is to look at “the big picture” of your paper and re-evaluate your discussion. At this stage it is often helpful to get feedback from someone else—perhaps a fellow student in your class or someone in your writing group—to get a sense from them how they experience your work as a reader.
Often, at this stage, you may find that you need to add an additional section to your writing project, or you have a sense that there is something missing. Don’t panic! This is exactly why we do this Macro Review, so that we can remove the passages that are extraneous and add more relevant information. You very well may find that you have to do some brainstorming and planning of this new information, and that is more than perfectly acceptable. In fact, I encourage it!
Just as you held onto your plan loosely, I encourage you to hold this process loosely as well. Although it may seem like a linear process on the surface, it’s not! You may find yourself going back to preview steps. When doing this it is crucial to properly balance your Creator and Editor roles—know which hat to have on and when. This will help you reduce any frustration you may be experiencing or any writer’s block that may be preventing you from making progress on your work.
It is crucial to properly balance your Creator and Editor roles—know which hat to have on and when.
While doing the Macro Review of your work consider the questions below. Many of these are geared more for scholarly essay or research writing, so some of these points may not be applicable to your particular writing project. Simply skip over the ones that do not apply.
Most importantly, I encourage you to think creatively about ways to strengthen to your draft.
Is the research question/main problem provided to effectively establish the context for the discussion? How might this be strengthened?
Is the significance established, specifically the significance of the topic for the intended audience?
Are all key terms clearly defined? Are additional terms needed, or are there any extraneous terms?
Is the thesis (main point) clear and direct? How might the thesis be strengthened?
Is there a forecasting statement that forecasts the main points/sections in the paper in the order that they are presented?
Does the organization of the points best support the discussion? How might this be strengthened?
Are there any extraneous points in the paper? Is there any point missing, or anything more you want to know, that would strengthen the work?
Are there any paragraphs/points that might be better suited to a different section of the paper?
Do all paragraphs have topic sentences?
Are there any places where transitions between paragraphs, sentences, and sections could be strengthened?
Is there sufficient evidence or examples to support and illustrate the points you are trying to make?
Are there any ideas/paraphrases that need further explanation so a reader who is not familiar with the texts could follow the discussion?
If you included quotations or paraphrases, are they smoothly integrated with the flow of your own words?
Assignment (if applicable)
Did you address every aspect of the assignment? (Review your syllabus or assignment sheet).
WARNING: DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP! :-)
It doesn’t matter how much time you have—5 minutes or 5 days—be sure to take a break. You’re almost there!
After that second, refreshing break (hopefully!) it’s time to put that Editor hat back on for the last part of this process, Step 7: Micro Review.
The goal of Micro Review is to look at “the smaller picture,” the individual paragraph and sentence-level areas of your writing to polish and strengthen the clarity of your ideas. During micro review, your attention should be focused on grammar, spelling, punctuation, APA/MLA citation styles, wordiness, transition, etc.
Consider these questions when doing a micro review and think creatively about ways to polish your draft. And, it doesn't hurt to double-check your Argument, Organization, and Evidence as well!
Details & Style
Are sentences varied in length and syntax?
Are there passages of passive voice that could be make “active”?
Are there any quotation verbs such as “wrote” or “said” or “stated”? These are overused; which quotations could be strengthened with an alternative quotation verb?
Is the title thought provoking and compelling? Does it engage the reader’s interest? How can it be strengthened?
Are there any spelling mistakes or missing words?
Pro Tip: Try reading your work aloud to catch these details and to get a sense of the rhythm and flow of your words.
If you have a question or comment related to this tutorial, please feel free to comment below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking forward to hearing from you!
Dr . Liz Burke-Cravens