The Writing Process
How much longer can I stare at that blinking cursor and blank screen before my head explodes?
As most of you have probably figured out, getting started is the hardest part of writing. We've all suffered through those endless nights of staring at the computer, desperately hoping that inspiration will fall from the sky as if by magic, making everything okay again.
The good news is that writing doesn't have to be like this. Sometimes getting started is hard because we have unreasonable expectations of this stage of our process. We've convinced ourselves that we can’t write until we know exactly what we're going to say. This causes paralysis, fear, anxiety, and, yes, nightmares.
We need to shift our thinking. Writing isn't only what we do when we know what we're going to say; rather, it can be one way we find out what we have to say. Writing is how we learn what we think.
We should also remember that the writing process begins before we actually sit down to write. It begins with thinking. The great thing about thinking is that it can happen anywhere. Some of us have rituals that we associate with thinking: a long shower, a brisk jog, sitting alone in a dark room listening to the same CD over and over and over. Whatever it takes. We should begin this stage of our process as soon as possible--ideally, as soon as we get the assignment.
This way, when it comes time to sit down at the computer, we will already have begun a significant portion of our work.
For some assignments (lab reports, information reports, case studies), getting started means reading our notes carefully, looking for logical ways to organize the information that we have gathered. Sometimes, we may be able to fit our notes into the format prescribed for the assignment (a lab report, for example). Sometimes, however, we have to construct a logical organization that fits the information we want to convey. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you think about organizing: What does a reader need to know first? Does a reader need to follow a process chronologically? Do we need to give a reader background information? Where do we need to introduce key words or key concepts?
Anticipating a reader's needs often helps writers to find the logic in their many notes.
For some assignments, freewriting maybe a good way to get started. When we freewrite, we're no longer thinking, "This is going to be the finished product, and it must be perfect," but, "This is simply a part of the process." Once you know what your assignment is, sit down at the computer and brainstorm. Follow your ideas wherever they take you. The trick is not to stop. Free associate. Don't worry about spelling, grammar, or structure. Simply write.
After fifteen minutes or so, print out what you've produced and read over it, pen in hand. Circle ideas that seem useful and relevant. Scratch out ideas that don't really have anything to do with your topic. Draw lines among related ideas. Having somewhat narrowed your focus, go back to the computer and freewrite some more, this time using your highlighted ideas as a guide.
After a couple of passes through this freewriting process, you'll probably begin to see what your main idea (your main argument) will be. You'll be ready to craft a thesis.
Writing a paper without a thesis is like driving without a destination (though much less fun). A thesis tells us where we're going. It gives us something specific to accomplish. It also tells our readers what to expect. In short, a thesis makes both writing and reading easier. Once you have a main idea, try stating that idea as specifically as possible in a sentence or two. This is your thesis.
Many of us have been told that outlines are good things, but we avoid them like yesterday's liver. Why is this? It's probably because we have a scary notion of what an outline is. Let's see, is this idea a little "a" or a big "A," a Roman numeral (small or large), or an Arabic number? Argh!!!
It can be useful to think of outlines in simpler terms. At the top of the page write your thesis. Then simply list the main ideas that support your thesis. You can begin by assuming that each of these supporting ideas will get its own paragraph. As you proceed, you may discover that some ideas can be usefully broken up into two or more ideas (into two or more paragraphs), but this basic model is an excellent way to begin.
Just as a paper needs a thesis, a paragraph needs a topic sentence. In your outline, try summarizing each of your main supporting ideas in one sentence. These one-sentence summaries can serve as your topic sentences.
Outlines like this not only help us to see the distinctions among our various ideas, but they also allow us to visualize the relationship of one idea to another. Look back over your outline and try to discover the natural groupings. Which ideas cluster together? Within each cluster, which idea is the most important? By answering such questions we discover the hierarchy of our ideas, and this will help us to develop the most logical order and movement of our argument.
One final note: once you've constructed an outline, don't feel that you'll sink if you decide to change it. It's an outline, not a life preserver. If you stumble upon a better way of organizing your ideas as you write, be flexible and change your outline.
Some of us have discovered that outlines are not really useful in our writing. We know how to make impressive outlines, but sitting down to write doesn’t feel easier with an outline in front of us. Some writers make maps of their ideas: they start with one idea, draw arrows to the next, and so on until they come to the end of the "road" of thought. Other writers begin by explaining their writing project to someone in a letter or e-mail message. This informal writing serves to loosen them up and get ideas on paper because they imagine a friendly and receptive reader.
A draft is not the same thing as a freewrite. It's your first real try at producing a finished paper. It should have an introduction, developed paragraphs, and a conclusion. In some classes, professors will look at drafts, you can share them with classmates for a peer review, or you'll have a chance to submit them for a class workshop. If your draft goes public, make sure that you use the spell-checker (and grammar-checker) on your computer and that you also proofread the draft.
Begin by drafting an introduction, but know that what you write will probably change drastically. Many writers like to imagine the introduction as a kind of inverted triangle. Try beginning rather broadly and gradually work your way to a more specific claim. This will be your thesis.
Any introduction needs to
- give your reader a clear idea of what question you are answering in your paper
- invite your reader to join you in considering that question (that is, the introduction should appeal to the reader's interest)
- give a sense of why the question is important - to you and others
- give the reader an idea of what kinds of sources you are considering for evidence.
The introduction, then, presents a question, the context for asking that question, and your motivation for answering it.
Writing the body of your paper means developing the ideas in your outline. Don't assume that your reader is inside your head. You have to explain your ideas in detail. Develop them fully so that your reader understands their relation to your thesis. Make sure that you provide evidence for your assertions. Remember, it's your job to support your thesis. Keep asking yourself these basic questions: "What did I tell my reader I was going to do? Am I doing it?"
Finally, you need to draft a conclusion. Many of us were probably taught that our conclusion is where we restate our argument. But think of this from the reader's point of view. If we're reading information that we've already read, what is our incentive to stay interested? Aren’t we likely to get bored and tune out? Keep this possibility in mind as you write your conclusion, and work on coming up with a new twist - something that offers an additional perspective on your topic, but not something that needs to be developed in full.
Your conclusion should answer the question, "so what?" Why is your argument significant? Why should anyone care about what you've just said in your paper?
Any conclusion may
- help your reader consider your ideas in a larger context (that is, show the reader that your question is really part of a larger question)
- inspire your reader to think about your question in a new way
- Justify your writing the essay by making a case for the significance of the question
- help your reader take the next step in thinking about the question.
"Revision" means "to see again." As you already know, however, this new vision is often hard to achieve because we're so much inside of our own writing and thinking process. Since we know what we meant to say, it often looks, to our eyes, as if we said it. We need to find a way to develop new eyes.
One way to do this is to make a new outline. We know that outlines help us before we write, but they can be equally useful after we've written. Try outlining your paper after you've drafted it. Write down what you take your thesis statement to be. Then go through your paper paragraph by paragraph. Try to sum up the main idea of each paragraph in a word, a phrase, or a sentence.
If you have a hard time doing this summary with a paragraph, it may mean that you're discovering a focus problem. For example, why, in this paragraph about the presidential election of 1968, am I suddenly talking about bananas? Are these two things related? Is that relation clear? If both ideas are important to my thesis, maybe I need to break them up into separate paragraphs. If one idea isn’t related to my thesis, then I need to have the courage to get rid of it. True revision requires this kind of courage. Sometimes we need to dump entire paragraphs. Sometimes we may find that our best ideas are buried in one paragraph, and that our other paragraphs are just taking up space. It's hard to get rid of paragraphs we love (they're like old shoes that way), but sometimes it's necessary.
Another way to check for focus problems is to compare your first and last paragraphs. Have you stayed on track? Does your final paragraph contain a clearer statement of your main idea, your thesis, than your introduction? Since we often discover the clearest expression of our ideas as we write, we may find that our final paragraph contains elements that would be useful in the introduction. Or, we may decide that the final paragraph would actually work better as the introduction. Don't be afraid to take big chances, and make big changes, in your revision. It may be scary at first, but you'll soon discover that this kind of large-scale revision is actually liberating.
There are all sorts of ways to proofread, and we generally need to use several of them. Try reading your paper out loud, marking the places where you stumble. Run a spell-checker, but don't assume that this tool will catch all of your problems. A spell-checker, after all, will think that the sentence "A cities main urban problem is often it's over crowing" is fine; the spell-checker won't know that you meant to write "A city's main urban problem is often its overcrowding." As you can see, spell-checkers can create new problems, sometimes leading to unintentionally funny moments. Be sure to proofread after spell-checking, as well as before.
In short, proofreading requires several passes at a paper. As with revision, we need to develop new eyes in order to catch our mistakes. We need to become aware of our bad habits. For example, if you know that you have a tendency toward passive rather than active sentence structure, it's a good idea to devote one reading of your paper to looking only for passive construction. We need to train ourselves, through habit, to see the things that are normally invisible to us.