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The Writing Process

The Writing Process

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson introduces the idea of writing as a process.

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Source: Lewer, Nick and Steven Schofield. Non-Lethal Weapons: A Fatal Attraction? Military Strategies and Technologies for 21st Century Conflict. New Jersey: Zed Books, 1997. Jones, Clarisse. “Police Say Taser Shocks are Replacing Deadly Shots.” USA Today. 13 July 2004. 15 Nov. 2004.

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Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. So what are we going to learn today? We'll look at the writing process, including details about its eight steps and how to approach them. Then, we'll discuss plagiarism, what it means in an academic context, and ways to avoid it.

One of the biggest misconceptions that introductory English students have is that they often think of writing as just something that happens. Like, you sit down right, and if you're good at writing, you do it well. And if you're not, you do it poorly. This couldn't be further from the truth. Any experienced writer will tell you that writing is a process, one you'll often have to repeat and restart many times as you work on a project.

Though experienced writers have often internalized much of the writing process, working as much out of instinct as conscious thought, it's useful to look at how the writing process works and break down the eight separate steps in the process. They are brainstorming, prewriting, thesis developing, researching, drafting, revising, and proofreading.

The first step to any writing project is brainstorming, which helps writers think about what they're going to right before they do so. This is the time to think about topics, subjects, and themes you might want to use. There are many different ways to perform brainstorming from free association, sometimes called reading, in which you write to yourself about the subject, knowing no one but you will see your notes.

Another method is creating a word web where you jot down terms and ideas you think might be important, then draw lines to connect other ideas other terms. It helps you see how multiple subjects might be related. Brainstorming is an often overlooked step, and this puts beginning writers at a disadvantage since they haven't given themselves enough time to think before starting to write and research the project.

The second step is prewriting, which will help you plan out your writing project. Once you've thought about your subject for a while, this will help you narrow your ideas into something manageable. This is also called the outlining stage. It's when you create your plan of attack, what you want your essay to say and do. Keep in mind that this plan isn't meant to be included in the writing project itself.

It's like the frames carpenters use while building a house, necessary even though they'll never be part of the building. This is another step you shouldn't neglect. In the long run, it'll save you time and effort.

The third step is thesis development. A thesis is the central sentence, or two, that explains the main argument you're trying to make. During this step, you work to answer the question. Now that I've got my subject, what am I trying to say or prove about it. What's the point I'm trying to make and how can I state it most clearly. With an answer, you'll be better suited to move forward with the project. And as you do, don't worry if your thesis begins to change during the research. It's just a sign that you're learning, forming a more complete, nuanced opinion or stance.

The fourth step is researching, which in an academic context, means you're getting information in order to understand the topic and to support the argument you want to make. You're looking for and evaluating possible sources of information and evidence. Research is an ongoing process, one you should perform with the assumption that some of the information you'll find will change your writing project.

The fifth step is drafting, in which you begin to write. Notice that it's only here, in the fifth of eight steps, that you actually begin to build the essay itself. Keep in mind though that you'll almost certainly have to return to this step later on. Drafting is important, but it's more important not to rush the earlier steps. If you do, chances are you'll find yourself writing before you even know what you're writing about.

After drafting comes revision, which is the process of evaluating and improving the early drafts of your writing project. This is where you take the time to reassess your essays ideas, structure, and conceptual elements. It's important to note that we're still interested in the big picture. We're not looking at grammar or typos yet since we are still making bigger, broader changes to the piece. We're still looking at the whole project, trying to see what it's saying and doing and how it aligns with the plan we had in the beginning.

Next comes editing in which we focus on issues of style, clarity, and redundancy. Now, that we asked the questions about our draft's structure, it's time to look more closely, focusing on the paragraphs and sentences. Now, we're looking to make sure that the language is clear and consistent, and that the essay is really saying we want it to say.

The last at this proofreading, where we finally look at word choice, grammar, and spelling. This is the last close reading of what's meant to be the final draft of the writing project. It's important to note that while proofreading is important for all writers, many beginning writers rush to the stage, worrying about punctuation for example, without first stepping back to ask whether or not that sentence even needs to be there in the piece.

The best way to really conceptualize these steps is seeing them applied to an actual writing project. Let's say I'm given an assignment to write a five page essay about police violence, anything within that topic. And I know that's a broad area, so I'll have to narrow it down by brainstorming a list of subjects within that area. These are a few I thought of. I could write about the rise in violent crime. I could write about the increasing militarization of police departments. I could talk about racism and unequal enforcement. I could talk about for-profit prisons, nonlethal weapons, nonviolent protests. Hopefully, you get the idea.

Let's say I decide I'm most interested in nonlethal weapons. It's a subject I don't know much about, but it seems like a narrow enough topic for a five page essay to cover. So what about nonlethal weapons? What are some possible arguments? What's a possible thesis I might be able to argue? Here are two possible ones that came to mind. I could argue that nonlethal weapons encourage police to use them more often than they would otherwise. Or, I could argue that nonlethal weapons help police keep citizens safe, even the victims.

Now, let's say I've chosen to argue that the use of non-violent weapons gives police a freer reign that they wouldn't have if unable to use TASERs and mace. That should work. I've gotten my argument. And I can think of a couple ways to make it. But before I start writing, I'll need to do some research to learn more and find evidence to back up my thesis. In the course of my research, let's say I find two sources.

In reality, I'd need many more, but two should work for this example. The first is a book titled Nonlethal Weapons: A Fatal Attraction, which seems to argue that since police are required to get tased themselves before being allowed to use them on others, they are less likely to use them unnecessarily. My second source is a newspaper article about how Seattle police are attributing a drop in police related shootings to their new TASERs.

So if I research is uncovering information that refutes my thesis, or at least seems to be refuting my thesis, should I change it? Probably. You don't have to. It's your argument, so say what you believe. But you better be able to back up whatever you're saying. In this case, I think I will change it. Instead of arguing that having these weapons makes officers more likely to use them, I'm going to argue that even if this is the case, it's still better because the weapons are less devastating. If more people are getting tased when they're arrested, for example, it's better than having more people being shot, or something to that effect.

So here's my new thesis, which I've written in the form of a concluding paragraph. If this is a real essay I was writing, this would be somewhere near the end, which is often where you find thesis. All that would be left, if I was really writing this, would be to reread this and the rest of the essay to make sure it's doing and saying everything I want it to. Then, I'd examine the language, looking for irregularities, before giving it a final proofreading to make sure it's free of errors.

I'll leave that up to you though. For now, let's review. Together, we brainstormed the topic and planned out how to write about it. We formulated a thesis and did some research, changed the thesis, and wrote it into a draft, which we made sure had been revised, edited, and proofread. Congratulations, you've now gone through all eight steps in the writing process.

Now, we need to take a little time to talk about one of the least comfortable subjects for any writer, plagiarism. It's a word I'm sure you've heard before, but put most simply, plagiarism is passing off someone else's work, whether in the form of writing or ideas, as your own.

There are two forms of plagiarism, and the first, which is what most people think of when they hear the dreaded p word in class, is intentional plagiarism. This is stealing someone else's ideas and cheating yourself of the opportunity to find out what you can do yourself. The second, which is more common than you might think, is unintentional plagiarism.

Whether a writer forgets to give another one credit or he or she is simply too lazy to go back and find out where he or she first encountered that idea, or cool turn of phrase, and instead writes it out, implying by omission that it's original work, it doesn't make much difference.

Vigilance and careful attention are the only ways to avoid it. And as for the first, I shouldn't have to tell you how to avoid it. I'll just say that it's always a good idea to respect the writing of others. And it's an even better idea to respect the potential for great writing that's in you waiting to be found.

So what did we learn today? We learned about the writing process and it's eight recursive steps. We looked at how you can use them to go from a prompt to a fully realized academic argument, and we talked a little about both kinds of plagiarism. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

Techniques to generate thinking in order to clarify thoughts and ideas.


An iteration of a writing project.


Improving a piece of writing by focusing on issues of style, clarity, and redundancy.


Presenting someone else's ideas or writing as your own, whether intentionally or unintentionally


Techniques, including outlining or other organization strategies, for planning a writing project.


Information gathering with the goal of understanding and supporting an argument or topic.


Critically evaluating a writing project’s ideas, structure, and support and making relevant changes that improve the work.


In English composition, a single sentence that explains the main argument or point of a piece of writing.

Writing Process

A recursive approach to writing that accepts multiple, recurring steps including brainstorming, prewriting, thesis development, research, drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading.