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Mastering the Writing Process

Few successful writers follow a stage model of writing

by Caryn Gracey

Remember your high school composition classes? All those step-by-step papers written by blueprint? Well, times have changed (thankfully) and so have you. When you are asked to write your first paper this term free your mind of the automatic battle plan provided in those classes and let the real writer in you come out to play.

Most of us were taught to think of writing as a three-step process (Pre-writing, Writing, and Re-writing) to be followed chronologically. New research has shown that this "model" of writing is inadequate and antiquated and many teachers are now teaching more effective writing processes.

By definition, writing by stages or chronological steps, locks the writer into one avenue of thinking. Once the initial research is done and the outline completed we are obliged to follow the formula we set forth. Period. End of story.

When the field of rhetoric began its recent growth spurt researchers began to focus on the need to find out how skilled writers do what they do. When they looked closely they found that few successful writers follow a stage model of writing. By studying successful writers researchers were able to revise the writing model to reflect the cognitive processes that actually make up the task of writing.

While there are other theories on the writing process, the cognitive school of thought is perhaps the most effective for aiding the actual practice of writing. The cognitive theory maintains that writing does in fact happen in "steps," but they aren't necessarily followed in the same order as in the stage model. Nor does each step lead directly to another in a sequential order. Instead, for the most part the writer moves fluidly back and forth between the processes that make up the act of writing.

These processes of writing are similar to the ones we learned all those years ago, but their sequence, duration, and the frequency of use is left up to the writer. By non-compartmentalizing the tasks involved in any writing project we are empowering ourselves. Certainly this new freedom opens us up to moments of indecision, but it also introduces us to moments of genius that we may not have realized were waiting there for us.

One of the most important factors in this new writing model is what rhetoricians call the "monitor." The monitor oversees the writing processes the same way a general oversees a battle being waged. Retreat or move forward? When is it time to move from one process to the next? Every writer, every piece of writing, every particular moment of writing will have a different answer. Some successful writers may re-read every sentence or phrase, some may only re-read when they're stuck. Listening to your "monitor" may take some conscious thought to begin with, but skilled writers hardly even notice when their "monitor" tells them to check in on this or that.

Ready to throw off the chains of outlines and rough drafts? Keep in mind that you're not saving time by cutting those tasks. In fact you may find yourself spending more time writing than you did the last time you were in school. The difference will be that, if you are listening to your inner voice and following the text to where it leads you, your papers will not only improve and fulfill the assignment but you'll find that you learn more from the assignments.

Writing Processes

Understanding the task. The assignment and your knowledge of the coursework will have an impact on the way you organize and write. Is the assignment to write an essay or is it really a position paper? Are you merely reorganizing thoughts or are you presenting an opinion on your topic? Either way your points need to be well-supported.

Next, consider who you're writing for. As a student your audience will generally be your professor and perhaps your classmates. What do you want them to take away from your text? How do you feel when you find a piece of writing that you can get lost in or a piece that excites you? What information do you have about your topic that will evoke that feeling in others?

Planning. When you are presented with a topic for a paper, or the opportunity to choose a topic, ignore the reflexive need to set down a formalized outline that takes you from thesis to conclusion in a straight line. Most skilled writers do not lock themselves into a single path or goal, allowing themselves the freedom to discover new ideas during the writing process.

Consciously or unconsciously writers begin by generating ideas. Search your memory banks and external resources for an angle that "feels" right. Something that "clicks" for you. What do you already know about your topic? Is there a sentence or phrase that you've read in your initial research that intrigues you?

Once you have an idea begin mentally organizing your thoughts. When you have an idea of where you want to go, start typing. Worry less about the detailed facts and figures you want to present. Type in a sentence or two that will precede the quote or figure you want to present then move on to the next logical step. Organizing is a crucial part of the writing process because it is frequently where we find ourselves making new connections.

Now you should start thinking about your goals. Don't focus solely on what you want to say (i.e. I want to explain how to write effectively), but also who you are writing for (i.e. appeal to adults who are returning to school) and what format you are hoping to end up with (i.e. a 1,500 word article). What you will end up with is a network of goals that will guide not only the content of your paper, but the processes you will use to complete the project. Include short term goals like "write an introduction" and sub-goals. Most importantly, realize that these goals aren't set in stone. Expect them to change and rearrange as you progress.

Translating/Drafting. Once you are comfortable with what you want to say and have some basic ideas down you can begin drafting the actual paper. In reality what you'll be doing is translating the information that you have stored in your long-term memory and the notes you have compiled through research into a cohesive text. If you are stumbling on a specific point but find yourself anticipating another, hit return a few times and promise yourself that you' ll get back to the other point later. You may find that what you are mentally formulating about the topic you are excited about will lead you to the best way to make the troublesome one.

If you are frustrated by the choice of a particular word, complete the sentence, bold the word and keep writing and come back to it later. Again, you may find that the word comes to mind six paragraphs later. If it doesn't you can always consult your thesaurus in the final polishing.

Evaluating. Take frequent breaks to review what you've written. You may be surprised by something that it reveals and where it can take you in the rest of the paper. Don't be alarmed if what you discover changes the goals you had settled on. By being aware that each word you write helps shape the rest of the paper you help ensure that the final product is a coherent and cohesive representation of your ideas.

Revising. Make revisions as you are evaluating, but don't forego that final pass through to polish things up. Rework that sentence that seems a bit awkward. Break up that mammoth paragraph. Change a word here and add punctuation there. Set the paper aside for a little while before you go back for your final edit. Put a load of laundry on, run to the grocery store, exercise. You'll have a fresher view of your topic and your writing.

If possible, have someone else do a quick read-through. Don't be surprised if they come up with a point or two and don't let your feelings get bruised. Most of the time your topic will be something new to your spouse, child, friend, or colleague so they will catch any holes you've forgotten to fill.

Once you've made your final revision, set the paper aside until it is time to turn it in. There is always something else that you'll feel you could change. Trust your initial intuition, it'll usually steer you the right way.

Stage Model of Writing
  • Create goals.
  • Formulate an outline - a means of getting from here to there.
  • Write based on the outline.
  • Re-read and revise the finished product.
  • Process Model of Writing
  • Planning.
  • Idea generation.
  • Organizing.
  • Goal setting.
  • Translating.
  • Reviewing.
  • Evaluating.
  • Revising.
  • Web Resources for Further Study:

    The Process of Writing.
    The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing guide to a four-step process model: (1) generating ideas, (2) mapping the argument, (3) composing a draft, and (4) revising.

    Process Writing.
    The University of Reading provides a quick overview of the cognitive process of writing, including a graphic of the process model created by Linda Flowers and John R. Hayes, the researchers who were mainly responsible for the beginnings of this theory.

    Overview of Composition Theories.
    An overview of composition theories from North Dakota State University to aid graduate instructors in teaching writing. It contains a linked table contrasting the ideas behind the Cognitive, Expressivists, and Social Constructionists.

    Caryn Gracey is a freelance journalist and children's book buyer who is currently pursuing a Master's of Writing from De Paul University.

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