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A Word or Two on the Writing Process

You probably are familiar with the term "the writing process." The writing process is more than a set of steps to follow in the right order. Some represent it as if it were a paint-by-the-numbers painting which will be complete only if you follow the numbers faithfully. Have you ever followed all the steps of the writing process but still come out with an awful paper? Teachers have broken down the act of writing into steps and tried to suggest a sequence to follow, but the act of writing doesn't follow a straight line. For instance, you may come to your real thesis as you write your conclusion (causing you to backtrack almost to the beginning in the writing process sequence). Writing is recursive; it doubles back upon itself and leaps ahead. If you correct a spelling error as you write your first draft, you have done a proofreading act (a later stage) while you are drafting (an early to middle stage).

Images of the recursiveness of the writing process:

recursive recursive

Thus, writing isn't a neat set of steps to follow but a complex organic act of creation. Rather than saying the writing process has "stages," we might describe the process better to say it involves "phases" that we might cycle and recycle through numerous times in the course of writing any single piece of writing.

When the writing process goes bad and how to overcome it:
Have you ever had trouble writing? Have you ever started to write a sentence and then crossed it out or taken an hour to write one paragraph and then crumpled up the page? Some people call it the terror of the blank page. Studies have even shown that writers may have a good sense of the writing process (that they should prewrite, write and revise), but they can still get stuck writing an essay. Knowledge of the writing process doesn't guarantee a good piece of writing.

Sondra Perl, a researcher into the writing process, explains that unskilled writer's lack of success in writing may be due to their too-early efforts to correct and edit their writing. These interruptions cut short these writers' flow of composing without significantly improving the overall content or form of what they have written. Another well-known teacher of writing--Peter Elbow--makes a similar point when he explains where writer's block comes from. Elbow points to the "double nature" of writing. On the one hand, as you write you have to be creative. You aren't necessarily creating like a novelist or a painter, but you still have to create the paper with its words and ideas. On the other hand, you are being critical. As soon as you write a sentence, a voice inside your head begins questioning--Did you spell it right? Is it what the teacher wants? Is it grammatically correct? Is it organized well? Can this be done?

Anne Lamott captures what this critical voice is like for many of us in her book Bird by Bird when she talks about writing a "shitty" first draft (see also Approaching 1st Drafts):

What I've learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there's the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, "Well, that's not very interesting, is it?" And there's the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there's William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on... . Quieting these voices is at least half the battle I fight daily. (25)

The critical voices in your own head as you write may be different, but these negative thoughts and emotions as we write can be paralyzing.

It's very hard to be creative while being critical because the critical voice cancels the creative side out.

Separating the Creative and the Critical
I suggest separating the two voices from each other as you work on your essay. Take time when you start just to be creative. You can't do anything in this phase "wrong." Your goal is to put down and explore as many ideas about your topic as you can. In traditional terms of the writing process, we can call this phase the "prewriting phase," but the truth is that you may return to this non-judgmental thinking at any time while working on a piece of writing.

As you work in this phase, you might do these types of activities: brainstorming, listing, questioning, clustering, data gathering, freewriting, and even a freewriting first draft. As you work in this creative phase, you will have to make a conscious effort not to be critical and ask, "Is it right?" As Anne Lamott says above, you will have to quiet these critical voices as you write. Let everything come out in whatever order or fashion you want. It will be chaotic, but out of chaos comes order--so be chaotic. As much as possible, don't let the critical voice stop your flow of work.

After you have spent time exploring your topic and getting a draft on paper, then put on your critical hat. Here your critical questions are appropriate and needed. First, you might look at the mess of your ideas and identify main ideas or supports. Perhaps you will come up with a mini-outline that you will use to write a more careful draft. Check to see that your draft is on-track with the assignment--this is VERY important. After a revised draft is finished, then you begin questioning if words are spelled correctly, paragraphs organized well, and sentences put together clearly and without error. In terms of the writing process, this phase involves outlining, drafting, revision, editing, and proofreading. See the guide Phases of Revision for more on a sequence for improving your early drafts.

Separating the creative from the critical will help you because you won't have to do everything at once. It means trusting your early efforts and believing in your ability to fix what needs to be fixed at a later time.

You may be interested in doing an imaginative exercise exploring these two sides of your writing self called The Watcher and the Muse.


The Importance of Assessing the Writing Situation
Other researchers into the writing process discovered one interesting fact about the writing process that can help you. They found that THE MOST significant thing writers can do with the largest impact upon whether their writing piece is successful or not is to carefully assess the "writing situation."

But what does the "writing situation" mean?
Orienting yourself to the writing situation means carefully examining the writing topic and everything it may be asking you to do. One trick is to identify the "essay question." Perhaps you also need to understand the context and importance of the "essay question" and topic as well (which may take some investigation). Clarifying the "essay question" will help you find your "thesis" for the essay because the thesis is your answer to the essay question. We'll call this answer or thesis your "message."

A crucial part of the writing situation is to recognize that you are not mumbling to yourself in a corner. You are attempting to communicate to someone with some purpose in mind. In addition to your message, you also need to define who you are sending this message to and why you are sending this message to them.

The Writing Situation

What is my message?

Who am I sending this message to?

Why am I sending this message to them?


Images of the Writing (or Rhetorical) Situation

situation situation


Although your message (thesis) may stay the same, your purpose may change depending upon your choice of audience or visa versa. You may adjust your diction (your choice of words) or the kind of support you choose to include depending upon your audience. Writing, thus, involves many choices and a close attention to and balancing of many constraints that can shape your communication. The following graphic depicts these various constraints of the writing situation.


Discovering and maintaining an appropriate and productive balance and alignment of these various constraints--finding one's rhetorical stance--is one of the most challenging and important things to do as we write.

For more see:
Orienting yourself towards a writing topic
The Watcher and the Muse.

See also a Power Point on the Writing Process

Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

Perl, Sondra. "The Composing Processes of Unskilled College Writers.” College Composition and Communication 28.8 (May 1977): 12-28. Reprinted in Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva, Jr.. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.


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