Developing an effective writing process has a huge impact on the quality of your writing. Sometimes we think that improving writing means finding the perfect article or having some divine inspiration, but it’s amazing how much our writing improves simply by adjusting our writing process to work better for us.
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A good writing process will be tailored to one’s individual learning style. Do you work better in the morning or at night? Do you work better alone or with friends? Do you write some things on a computer and some on paper? Do you give yourself enough time for your ideas to properly develop?
If you approach your individual process with curiosity and flexibility, insights await. For example, maybe you enjoy lots of background noise when producing your first rough draft, but silence is better for editing. If you feel your usual process isn't working, try to experiment with changing variables: reflect on what works and what doesn't.
The writing process is also recursive. This means that the steps of the process don't unfold in a clean, precise order. Instead, writers move between steps, leaping forward, circling back and repeating them as needed. In fact, you might find it more helpful to think of the writing process as a buffet of writing activities rather than a rigid sequence.
When you chart in order the activities any given writer engages in to produce an essay, the resulting visual resembles more of a spiderweb than a tidy procedural diagram.
A logical starting place for writing any assignment is understanding. Before you begin to do anything, after all, you need to know what it is you're being asked to do!
If you need more information to plan your work, ask your instructors or tutors early. As you begin to understand the task, think about adding your own deadlines for specific tasks in your calendar as well: maybe have a first draft ready one week early, or an outline ready by the end of the week.
Tip: Use the list of 'process words' on pages 7-8 of Nottingham's 'Planning and Preparing to Write Assignments' guide for help understanding assignment aims.
Once you’ve got a good understanding of the task, it is time for ideas. The invention stage is not the time to say no. It is the time to generate ideas without judgment. The benefit of getting a bunch of ideas on the page is that you can avoid pursuing the first idea that comes to your head. Often, the better ideas are waiting behind our first thoughts.
Some people prefer to make lists. Some prefer to structure lists into outlines. Others like to map out connections between ideas visually with colourful mind maps, which can be drawn longhand or built in a mind mapping app or website. Find a way that works for you.
Whether or not we write it in our essays, each piece of academic writing is answering a question. If we can tailor that question to our specific task, it helps us maintain our focus as we research and write. Before beginning the research portion, turn your ideas into questions. That way, you can seek specific answers.
A good research question won’t have a simple, single answer. A good research question will offer many opportunities to discuss different perspectives, but still stay focused on a specific purpose for the text.
This is where things are about to get more complicated. Take a step back and think about where you are headed with your research and if it really fits the task. Are you still on topic? Have you found new, exciting material that raises better research questions? Pause to plan and revisit your ideas. Transfer your research into an outline or some other sort of plan. This is why it helps to give yourself time.
The rough draft can be a mess: explore our guide on rough drafting to learn more. This is the first translation of planning into prose, so don’t feel any pressure to get it perfect on the first try. Don’t overthink. It's called a rough draft for a reason!
If writing anxiety and/or perfectionism make it difficult for you to get words down without picking over and rethinking them, consider trying a website that prevents you from deleting your text. These sites allow you to type as much as you want, but you can't erase any of the words you have written: a very helpful tool to quiet your inner critic, and get on with it!
You can also try a technique called freewriting. The simplest version is to set a timer for five or ten minutes, and then write nonstop until the timer dings. No pausing, no stopping to ponder your next point: your pen on the paper (or your fingers on the keyboard) should be moving nonstop. You can stumble into some great ideas this way! The key is to reflect on and sort through your freewriting after the timer dings, identifying promising ideas or phrases (and ignoring the rest).
The editing or revision process is when all the elements start working together as you write and refine, then re-write and re-refine. You should ultimately be clarifying and supporting your main points in a recursive process. Go back to the writing prompt, revisit your notes, share your draft with someone to read, ask friends about your argument, go for a walk, build a reverse outline, question the validity of your claims, re-organise your points, do another search for articles. Do whatever it takes to turn the cloud of thoughts and ideas into a coherent piece of work.
Whereas the editing or revision stage is concerned with the 'big picture', such as how evidence is used to support your thesis statement, proofreading is the time to polish the fine details of your work. Ensure the 'small picture' concerns are addressed before you submit. Our 'Refine Your Writing: Better Proofreading' learning sequence will equip you with a range of strategies to improve your skills; here are some highlights:
Only you will know when your paper is completed and ready for submission. Be sure to do the following:
This is only one version of a writing process. Each writer should work towards a healthy, effective way to use each of these steps or activities to accomplish a successful piece of writing. Once you have this knowledge, the larger question becomes one of planning, continuing curiosity and reflection. Embrace opportunities to expand or redefine your process as you encounter new academic challenges.