Once you've made the decision to work on improving your writing, you need to think about exactly what you'll be working on. In other words, you need to consider how to handle the various steps involved in the process of writing: from discovering ideas for a topic, through successive drafts, to a final revision and proofreading.
Let's look at how three students have described the steps they typically follow when writing a paper:
- Before doing anything, I make sure I've got a quiet room and a clear head. When I feel ready to work, I sit in front of my laptop and begin tapping out whatever comes to mind. Then, after taking a short walk, I read over what I've written and pick out the things that strike me as worth keeping--key ideas and interesting details. After this, I usually go on to compose a rough draft pretty quickly. Then (maybe in a day or two, if I've gotten an early start) I read the draft and add explanations and ideas and make some grammatical changes. Then I write it over again, making more changes as I go. Sometimes I complete the whole process in an hour or two. Sometimes it takes a week or more.
- I like to do my first draft on paper--that is, after I've daydreamed for an hour or two, raided the refrigerator, and made a fresh pot of coffee. I specialize in procrastination. After running out of ways to distract myself, I start to scribble down everything I can think of. And I mean scribble--write fast, make a mess. When I figure out what I've scrawled, I try to fix it up into an orderly, halfway-decent essay. Then I put it aside (after making another trip to the refrigerator) and start all over again. When I'm done, I compare both papers and combine them by taking some things out and putting other things in. Then I read my draft out loud. If it sounds okay, I go to the computer and type it up.
- In trying to put together a paper, I go through four phases. First, there's the idea phase, where I get this bright idea. Then there is the productive phase, where I'm really smoking, and I start thinking about the Pulitzer Prize. After that, of course, comes the block phase, and all those prize-winning dreams turn into nightmares of this big, six-foot guy jammed into a first-grader's desk and being made to print the alphabet over and over again. Eventually (hours, sometimes days later), I hit the deadline phase: I realize that this sucker has got to be written, and so I start burning it out again. This phase often doesn't start until ten minutes before a paper is due, which doesn't leave a lot of time to proofread--a phase I never seem to get around to.
As these examples show, no single method of writing is followed by all writers in all circumstances. Each of us has to discover the approach that works best on any particular occasion. We can, however, identify a few basic steps that most successful writers follow in one way or another:
- Discovering (also known as invention): finding a topic and coming up with something to say about it. A few of the discovery strategies that can help you get started are freewriting, probing, listing, and brainstorming.
- Drafting: putting ideas down in some rough form. A first draft is generally messy and repetitive and full of mistakes--and that's just fine. The purpose of a rough draft is to capture ideas and supporting details, not compose a perfect paragraph or essay on the first attempt.
- Revising: changing and rewriting a draft to make it better. In this step, you try to anticipate the needs of your readers by rearranging ideas and reshaping sentences to make clearer connections.
- Editing and Proofreading: carefully examining a paper to see that it contains no errors of grammar, spelling, or punctuation.
The four stages overlap, and at times you may have to back up and repeat a stage, but that doesn't mean you have to focus on all four stages at the same time. In fact, trying to do too much at one time is likely to create frustration, not make the writing go faster or easier.
Writing Suggestion: Describe Your Writing Process
In a paragraph or two, describe your own writing process--the steps that you ordinarily follow when composing a paper. How do you get started? Do you write several drafts or just one? If you revise, what sort of things do you look for and what sort of changes do you tend to make? How do you edit and proofread, and what types of errors do you most often find? Hold on to this description, and then look at it again in a month or so to see what changes you have made in the way you write.