Thursday, October 17, 2013

An Overview of the Writing Process

Sometimes writing a paper can feel an awful lot like "Chutes and Ladders."

Writing is a process, but not necessarily a linear process.  

Instead of thinking about the writing process as a series of rungs in a ladder that lead to a final essay, think of the writing process as a successive set of cycles.

I don’t recommend trying to say “successive set of cycles” five times fast, but I do recommend reading this essay to get a better idea of what I mean by it.

Steps and Sub-Steps

The steps in the writing process include prewriting, outlining, drafting, and revising.  Each of these main steps includes several sub-steps.  For example, prewriting also includes choosing and narrowing a topic, creating a preliminary thesis statement, and defining a purpose and audience.  Outlining includes finding the best evidence, planning for order and flow, and logically dividing a preliminary thesis into preliminary topic sentences.  Some writers edit and draft concurrently, and others draft and research concurrently.  Revising may require additional editing for grammar, mechanics, and usage, but it is mainly a cycle of ensuring an essay has unity, coherence, and clarity. 

Clearly, the writing process is never as clear cut as the term “writing process” implies.  There are moments and situations where crossing back, across, and forward to additional “sets of cycles” might be necessary. 

  • Prewriting usually leads to outlining, but if a writer struggles with the outline, he or she may need to do more prewriting to clarify his or her own position on the topic or to better determine the purpose of the essay. 
  • Outlining leads to drafting, but a weak draft, a draft that includes too few details, may require more prewriting or a more detailed outline. 
  • A completed draft leads to revising, but after revising, a writer may need to redraft entire sections of the paper, which would call for additional prewriting, or outlining, or research.

Steps of the Writing Process in Action

Here is an example of the writing process in action.  The hypothetical writer, “Hannah,” has an expository essay assignment due in her composition class next week.  Where does Hannah begin? 


First, Hannah prewrites in order to generate ideas about a topic.  She uses the processes of freewriting and looping to help her decide to write an expository essay about how to make pine needle tea.  Her audience is her classmates, and after a brief conversation with many of them during a break from class, she learns that none of her classmates have ever heard of making pine needle tea. She knows she will be writing for people who will need to understand basic information in order to understand her how-to essay.

Armed with a knowledge of her purpose (to inform), a narrowed topic (how to make pine needle tea) and the level of knowledge of her audience (basic), she begins to compose a preliminary thesis statement.  She begins her thesis with her topic, and then she makes a statement about her topic, all within the same sentence.  “Making pine needle tea,” she writes, “is a simple process, and taking the time to learn to make this tea will yield a safe, delicious, and nutritious hot beverage.”


Once Hannah has her preliminary thesis statement, she places it at the top of an outline and figures out how to divide the support for the thesis into logical topic sentences.  She decides to make her first body paragraph an explanation of the tea’s nutritional benefits, the second paragraph about gathering pine needles, and the third paragraph about preparing the needles and making the tea. Her first topic sentence is “Pine needle tea has many nutritional benefits.”  Her second topic sentence is “Gathering pine needles is easy, not to mention inexpensive.”  Her third topic sentence is “Preparing the pine needles for tea takes about thirty minutes, but is well worth any time spent.”

Hannah looks back at her thesis and realizes she has forgotten to include supporting details for her idea that making the tea is safe.  She rewrites the topic sentence for the second body paragraph as follows: “Pine needle tea is safe to drink as long as the preparer is knowledgeable about gathering the proper ingredients.”

Next, Hannah outlines how she will support each topic sentence.  She adds expert information about the tea’s nutritional benefits to the outline for her first body paragraph.  She adds a step by step explanation  and description of pine needles as support for her second paragraph.  For her third paragraph, Hannah adds a step by step explanation of how to prepare the pine needles and brew the tea.


Finally, Hannah drafts her essay, turning all of the support she jotted onto her outline into paragraphs.  She adds transitional words and phrases between paragraphs.  She adds attribution and citations for all of her expert testimony and nutritional information.  Lastly, she adds a lead-in and a conclusion that summarizes her main points.


Hannah rereads her draft to look for opportunities for revision, and she realizes her second paragraph is weak.  When it comes to safety, she thinks, none of her classmates are going to believe the tea is safe right away.  She realizes she needs more expert testimony.  She then adds additional expert testimony about the safety of the tea to the outline for her second paragraph, and then she adds the information to her essay with proper attribution and a citation.  

While rereading her paper she also notices that the ending of her essay is abrupt and not very memorable.  She revises her introduction and conclusion to make them more interesting so that they capture and keep a reader’s attention.

Once Hannah is happy with her revised essay, she proofreads it one last time to look for grammatical and mechanical (punctuation and capitalization) errors.  She corrects the title of her paper for title case, corrects two sentence fragments, changes an instance of the second person “you” to the third person “people,” and changes the spelling of “they’re” to “their.”  She formats her essay according to the MLA style guide provided by her university, and she turns in her paper.


Following the steps in the writing process can help ensure a writer completes an essay that has unity, coherence, and clarity.  Each step, however, should not be thought of as a rung in a ladder that leads to a completed essay.  Each step is actually a set of cycles, a cycle of reading, thinking, revising, and rethinking, that gets a writer from idea to exceptional essay.

Want to learn more about writing essays?  

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Want to learn more about the three qualities of writing? Try

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