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Writing Process Overview

Writing Process Overview

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson gives an overview of the Writing Process and how to approach it.

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Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? Today, we'll be talking about the writing process. We'll go over the steps that successful writers perform every time they set out to create a writing project, including brainstorming, prewriting, thesis development, researching, drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading.

We'll also talk about the recursive nature of this process, how writers will often repeat several steps in order to get the most out of their time and their effort. Then we'll take a look at a couple of examples, so we can get a better sense of what it means to not only know but undergo the writing process.

First though, let's get a couple of things straight. There are many unspoken, incorrect assumptions beginning writers make about what it means to write. Many believe that great writers simply sit down at their computer, their typewriter, or their notebook and magically create a finished, fully realized project.

It's a romantic image. The solitary genius practicing his or her art. But like many romantic illusions, it has a harmful side. All too often, when those same beginning writers sit down to do their own work, whether it's an assigned essay or some creative piece of poetry or fiction that they just want to write, they get frustrated when their expectations aren't met.

After all, if you believe the writing just happens and it doesn't happen for you or doesn't happen well enough, there's nothing to do but assume that you just don't have it, whatever it is that makes a writer a writer. Then tragically, many aspiring writers quit, having never really given themselves a chance.

And here's the thing. All experienced writers know that there's nothing magic about the process. Just as any experienced artist knows, there's nothing magic about how he or she makes out of oils and papers a portrait. Just as a craftsman knows, there's nothing magic about how he or she takes reeds and makes a complex, beautiful basket.

It's not magic. It's a process with multiple skills and steps involved and one they've gone through over and over again. So with that in mind, let's look at writing. The writing process is a recursive approach to writing, in that it accepts multiple, recurring steps, which include brainstorming, prewriting, thesis development, research, drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading.

And like any other process, it's one that will become not only easier but more productive with time, as an early writer hones his or her skills learning how to perform the multiple, recurring steps more efficiently, and most of the time with less conscious thought. But for those just starting out on their literary careers, it's useful to take a closer look at how these steps work and how they can help.

There are eight distinct steps in the writing process. The first thing a writer should do in setting out on a new writing project is brainstorming. This is when an ideas is generated, not just a topic but what about that topic that interests you, what about it that you want to explore.

Next comes prewriting, the step in which we narrow our topic down to a more manageable focus, making sure it's something we can tackle in the space and time provided for the writing project. This is also where outlining comes in, forming a general plan for the writing to be done. Think of this as the bones on which the rest of the essay will grow.

The third step is thesis development, in which we find a single, focused, organizing idea or argument around which the rest of the essay will revolve. What, put most simply, are we trying to say, to explain, or to convince our readers of.

Then we come to researching. This is when we go out into the broader academic conversation and see what's already been said about or around our topic, finding, assessing, and organizing sources of information to be used later.

This is a step that we'll come back to many times most likely. And it's one that will likely prompt returns to earlier steps as well, as we learn more about our subject and our ideas evolve because of it.

And now, we come to drafting. This is where we begin to create the actual text of the essay, keeping in mind as we do that multiple drafts will almost certainly be required, if we want to get the most out of the writing process.

Revising comes after drafting. This is when we reassess the conceptual and structural elements of the essay in order to improve it and to add nuance, as well as to make sure the writing project is saying what we want it to say.

Then we edit the manuscript, looking for problems with style, with clarity, with word choice and redundancy. And the last step is proofreading, fixing issues with grammar, spelling, and mechanics.

It's also important to note that while these eight steps when listed like this seem very distinct, in reality they flow smoothly from one to another and blur together. So it's not always clear which part of which step we're actually working on.

As we mentioned earlier, the writing process is recursive, which means its steps, while sequential, will often have to recur, sometimes over and over again before the process can be considered complete. It depends on the particular writer and the particular writing project, but in general, writers will repeat the process each time they write a new piece. And they will repeat earlier steps in the process each time they work on an individual piece.

Often, this happens because aspects of the writing project itself have changed during the writing process. This is perfectly natural and a sign of complex, critical thought on the writer's part. While this might seem to complicate matters, the fact that the writing process isn't a straight line from one to done or even a simple repetition, a circle, and in fact makes the process more approachable, since nothing is set in stone, and everything is malleable and dependent on you, the creator of the work.

For example, let's say I have set out to write an essay about dinosaurs. It's a huge topic. So first, I want to brainstorm a little. I want to figure out what about dinosaurs interests me.

Let's say I'm most interested in how and why archaeologists find bones, the way they go from digging something up to putting it in a museum. This is probably a finite enough topic. But I should still probably narrow it down a little.

Let's say I've only got five pages to write according to the assignment I was given. So after doing a little outlining, I think I'll be able to thoroughly explore the history of archaeological findings in my area, having narrowed it down a little bit more.

My thesis will be arguing that archaeology is a complex field and that we should have a board to decide who gets to excavate bones, et cetera. I first started thinking about this, because I heard about a place tourists can pay to break open shale and look for fossilized sea animals. This seems like fun, but a scientifically terrible idea.

Now, let's say that during my research process, I find a book about a scientist who thought he'd found a new dinosaur. But 20 years later, after having it up in museums, having it written down in books, et cetera, new evidence came out, proving that he'd simply put the wrong skull on the wrong neck and that there never was such a thing as the dinosaur he'd discovered.

This fascinates me. And all of a sudden, my writing project has a new thesis, one about the guesswork involved in archaeology and how little we actually know about dinosaurs. So now, armed with a new thesis and some research under my belt, I start writing it. And as I do, I find that I actually know very little about this topic, despite all the research I've done so far.

And so I narrow my focus a little bit, and basically tell that archaeologist's story, and then use that to make my argument about guesswork and how little we actually know about archaeology. After revising and editing the draft, I'm still satisfied with the way my project is coming out. So I move on to proofreading and finally turn it in.

So as you can see, it wasn't exactly a smooth process for that hypothetical essay. But let's look at another. How about a completely different process? And this is one I've actually done before.

I was writing a short article about genetically modified organisms, intending to argue that rather than banning the research into GMOs based on fear of what scientists might find, we should promote publicly funded research, instead of allowing companies like Monsanto and others to corner the market on the research.

However, I hit a snag partway through the process, as after writing my first draft, I found out that there's actually a lot more publicly funded research than I'd thought going into it, most of which was associated with state universities and some of which have discovered some amazing findings.

So now that I've found that my original thesis, while not exactly wrong, is based on an inaccurate reading of the subject's context, so I need to shift a little. What I ended up doing was scrapping most of the draft and focusing my next draft more heavily on the history of this specific crop, in particular the Roundup resistant canola that Monsanto-paid scientists created.

I wrote about how the company has forced farmers to pay them for the crops, even farmers who didn't buy it, simply because the plant spread to their farm, which is what plants do. So as you can see, my thesis didn't change much-- I'm still arguing against for-profit research-- but I found a better perspective, a better lens through which to look at the subject.

And as you can see from both of these examples, the writing process is a recursive, repetitive, fluid process and one that's going to change every time you or any other writer sits down to work. And believe me, while it may not be exactly magical, it can sometimes feel that way.

So what did we learn today? We learned about the writing process, looking at eight steps. Then we learned about how the process works, through recursion. Finally, we looked at a couple of examples of the process. My name's Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know
Writing Process

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