A Writing Process

15 Feb. 2007

In this discussion on writing, I present a few principles about my philosophy of writing and then explain an approach to writing that has served me reasonably well. It took a long time to develop this technique, but don’t despair (or feel guilty) if it doesn’t work for you. Each of us thinks—and therefore approaches writing—in different ways; sometimes I prefer to use other methods if they seem better suited to that occasion. Creative work is hard enough on its own; your approach to writing should not be a stumbling block to your work or even deter you from even starting it. Above all, the tools you use should enable you to express your ideas and make the work enjoyable at the same time.

Thinking about writing

Writing is a conversation with yourself. Your writing is largely the product of an internal dialogue: those words had to come from somewhere! Writing is a physical manifestation of what you think and how you think it. Because writing is a tangible object, you can wrestle with your thoughts without necessarily losing track of them. You can also see how your thinking develops and changes over time, as you add new ideas and angles to whatever you’re writing about.

Writing shouldn’t be feared. The only way to improve your writing is to write as much and as often as you can. As with anything in life, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to get better at something without practice. Your brain needs exercise for its writing muscles to strengthen. Don’t worry about the “rules” of writing, especially as you begin a new project. Focusing on correctness will almost certainly distract you from the more important task of putting your ideas in writing. Writing what you think is far more valuable than using proper grammar. (Proofreading your work is worth doing, but as a step in revision, not creation.)

Writing is also a conversation with others. While the purpose of writing is to put your thoughts in a tangible form, it is important to remember that your audience is ultimately people who aren’t you. This concern is a part of revision. If you want people to understand your thinking, you need to be sure that you are writing in a coherent way, so “proper” syntax is important. But you should take more care not to abbreviate your ideas. Not everyone will make the same mental connections and leaps that you do, so you need to show and explain your thinking. Help others to see how you think. This approach will also help you clarify your thinking for yourself and may lead to new discoveries.

Turning your thoughts into a paper

In the following paragraphs, I’ll focus on the writing of an “academic” paper, although many of my recommendations can apply to almost any kind of writing project. There are several ways to go about writing a thoughtful paper, and your teacher may expect you to adhere to certain requirements for organization, documentation, and style. That said, you’ll write better if you work to your own strengths and then attempt to follow the rules of others. (Make sure not to be too cavalier, though!—you should still attempt to meet your instructor’s expectations.)

Begin by picking a topic that has room for debate or is a conversation that you want to join. Weigh the amount of time and effort that you are able or want to spend on the paper. Be careful to avoid picking a topic that is either too broad or too narrow in its focus. “All of Shakespeare’s plays,” for example, is at least a lifetime’s work; “Othello 5.2.356” could be interesting, but you might have trouble writing more than two or three pages without a tremendous amount of research. In addition, you should think about whether you want to engage an issue with a glut of writing already about it: this problem often transforms a broad topic into a narrow one; you could end up with little room for original thinking.

Once you have picked a topic that works for you, create a list of questions that you have about it. (I find it useful to ask “why?” and “so what?” questions.) These questions can help guide your approach to your paper, which will probably answer some of them. The other questions will probably be answered during the course of your research. In addition, these questions will help you evaluate the sources that you find in the course of researching your topic.

Consult appropriate resources to research your topic. Your instructor or a librarian should be able to point you in the right direction and may even recommend a good place to start. As you begin reading about your topic, remember that reading isn’t something that just happens. You need to be an active participant, asking questions about your reading and attempting to make connections with other things you’re reading. I like to write short descriptive “subject headings” on a separate piece of paper and note where those subjects appear in my reading. This helps me focus on what I’m reading for. Along similar lines, indices and tables of contents are helpful in organizing your thinking, even when you don’t have a looming deadline.

Once you’ve read enough material to have a clearer picture of what your paper will probably address, it’s time to begin writing. You don’t necessarily need to stop your research, but at some point you will need to transition from reading, to synthesizing, to writing. A good place to start this transition is to write a short paragraph that encapsulates what you want to write about. The paragraph should only be four or five sentences, followed by a preliminary thesis statement or truth-claim that will focus your paper.

After the focusing paragraph, you should return to your list of questions and list of subject headings. Combine these lists and organize them according to which items from these lists will support your thesis, which items will challenge it, and which items aren’t particularly important to it. All three categories are important, as you shouldn’t let other ideas distract from your argument. It’s also good practice to address reasonable challenges to your claims, so your readers can more easily accept your argument. From these lists, identify specific evidence that you plan to use (including appropriate quotes from your research). Write an explanatory sentence or two about each piece of evidence.

Write a series of topic sentences or concepts that you need to address. Don’t worry about appropriate sequence (or even coherence) until you feel you’re “done enough.” Then, order your sentences so that they tell a coherent story. Make sure to fill in any gaps in your “plot,” so that each idea transitions well into the next. A topic sentence usually functions as the organizing principle for each paragraph in your essay. Flesh these ideas out, using your own thoughts and any of the evidence from your most recent list. A note regarding others’ words: it is imperative that you document who said what and explain how those words fit into (or challenge) your argument. Your goal is to create something that is primarily yours, not a compilation of the ideas of others. In examining the work of others (by explaining or questioning it), you prevent your paper from becoming a compilation of their ideas and make them part of your argument.

By now the body of your essay should be taking shape. Read your paragraphs and make sure that one idea logically leads to the next. Then return to your focusing paragraph. Has your writing accomplished the work that you thought it would? If it has, write a paragraph, perhaps based on your focusing paragraph, that introduces your paper’s topic and concludes with a clear, assertive articulation of your thesis statement. If your writing doesn’t reflect your original focusing paragraph, you should think about what your writing does accomplish. Then write a paragraph that introduces that topic or issue and concludes with a clear and assertive thesis statement. In either case, your thesis statement should be a truth-claim that necessitates and is confirmed by the paragraphs that follow it.

Reread what you have written. Write a sentence that allows your reader to recall your original truth claim (but don’t repeat it verbatim). This sentence will probably operate as the first sentence of your conclusion. Then answer any questions that come to mind, but make sure to address the following: What additional conclusions can you draw from your paper? Are there new places to go that aren’t directly related to your specific argument or topic? Is there a logical outcome to your paper? Why does your paper matter? Your answers will serve as the foundation for the remainder of your concluding paragraph.

It’s finally time to edit. Your first goal should be to identify any gaps in your paper and to fill them. Are there any leaps of logic or abrupt changes in focus? After you’ve addressed these gaps, move on to what is usually called “proofreading.” Do you transition smoothly between paragraphs? Are there any undefined terms that need clarification? Do your sentences make sense? Along these lines, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style will be useful (see below). Ask someone else to read your paper and to provide feedback, especially concerning the clarity of your argument and the organization of your evidence. Then, read your paper aloud: this forces your brain to process your writing in a way that will help you notice any errors or confusing passages—something your brain doesn’t do when you read silently, since we all tend to read what we expect to see in our own writing.


You are reading “A Writing Process,” part of “The Writing Manifesto.”

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