Mastering the Writing Process
Few successful writers follow a stage model of
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
to focus on the need to find out how skilled writers do what they do.
they looked closely they found that few successful writers follow a stage
model of writing. By studying successful writers researchers were able
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
of thought is perhaps the most effective for aiding the actual practice
writing. The cognitive theory maintains that writing does in fact happen
"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
to the writer. By non-compartmentalizing the tasks involved in any writing
project we are empowering ourselves. Certainly this new freedom opens
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
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
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
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
from the assignments.
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
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
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
Consciously or unconsciously writers begin by generating ideas. Search
memory banks and external resources for an angle that "feels"
Something that "clicks" for you. What do you already know about
Is there a sentence or phrase that you've read in your initial research
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
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
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
Once you've made your final revision, set the paper aside until it is
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
|Stage Model of Writing
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
Web Resources for Further Study:
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.
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.
Caryn Gracey is a freelance journalist and children's
book buyer who is currently pursuing a Master's of Writing
from De Paul University.
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