Since the 60s, composition researchers have been discovering more about a writer's process, that is the steps they go through when completing a writing project. Here are a few key findings from that research, followed by more in-depth explanation on the page below:
- all writers have a process
- typical process steps include the prewriting, writing, revision, and editing phases.
- the process changes among writers and between types of writing projects and situations
- processes are recursive: that is, the writer moves back and forth through the different steps of the process
In traditional writing classrooms, the writing process was largely ignored. Teachers asked students to write regularly but did not give them much guidance in their writing. Students generally wrote something, turned it in, and may or may not have received feedback. They were not shown how to develop a topic, write a draft, and work on revising.
Fortunately, this began to change in the 1960s when writing teachers and researchers began to talk about a writing process that could be explicitly taught. Donald Murray was one writing teacher who saw the traditional mode of writing teaching as flawed, and emphasized the importance of teaching a process of discovery. According to Murray, "once you look at your composition program with the realization you are teaching a process, you may be able to design a curriculum which works" (p. 89). Given that Murray was writing pretty early, his notion of process was fairly basic but helpful. He divided the writing proces into three parts, which are shown in the chart below:
According to Murray, the prewriting process may take 85% of the writer's time, while the writing component may only take 1% of the writer's time. The final step in Murray's process was rewriting, or revising, which he said may take the remaining 14% of time.
Later researchers such as Flower and Hayes (1981) expanded on Murray's work, making the argument that the writing process is recursive instead of linear. Under Murray's model, the writer progressed neatly through the three stages depicted on the chart. However, under the recursive model, the writer is constantly cycling through these steps, returning to prewriting after revising or revising while writing. Flower and Hayes wrote that "Writing is best understood as a set of distinctive thinking processes which writers orchestrate or organize during the act of composing” (pp. 366-374). Understanding process in this way makes one realize how each writer's process is different and how these processes change according to the task at hand. For instance, while writing a personal narrative, one may not need to do as much prewriting (i.e. research) that one has to do when undertaking a major research paper. While more advanced writers may not need to revise as much, beginning writers may need to devote a lot more time to the revision stage.
Take a moment to think about your process and reflect on these questions:
- Do you generally go through all three stages when working on a writing project? Is your process generally linear or recursive?
- What part of the process usually takes most of your time? Does this change according to the project?
- What part of the process do you think you need to work on the most?
Prewriting includes the steps writers typically engage in before drafting a paper: brainstorming, researching, data analysis, outlining, etc. For more information on conducing research, visit the researching page. Here, I would like to focus on providing you with a few ideas for developing ideas for a paper as well as outlining. Here are a few commonly used brainstorming methods:
- make a list: once you have a general idea of your topic, rapidly write a list with key words and phrases that come up when you think about your topic.
- freewriting: with your topic in mind, write as quickly as possible for a certain amount of time. During freewriting, don't worry about grammatical correctness or the perfectness of your ideas; just let the ideas flow.
- discuss with a peer: sometimes the best ideas come from talking with another person. Share topic ideas with peers in your class or field of study and they may be able to give you new ideas or help you refine yours.
- idea map: write your topic in the center of a piece of paper and draw a circle around it. Around it, add new words or phrases related to your topic and connect them via a series of lines. Here is an example:
As mentioned above, the writing process is recursive and the writer is constantly moving back and forth between steps. While you're writing, you'll may come up with new ideas and directions, even some that require new research. You may also go back over a sentence and revise the wording choice or the way you make a point; however, you should not get too caught up in grammar and mechanics during this stage.
Here are some tips to better handle the writing process:
- set deadlines: good writing does not happen overnight. Make sure you get a good draft done well before the due date so you can have time to step away before revising.
- find a comfortable place without distractions for writing: many people have trouble writing at home because there are a lot of distractions such as TV, family members, chores, etc. If this is a problem for you, try writing in the library where there are less distractions.
- write regularly: instead of feeling compelled to write everything in one or two settings, start in advance and try to write a bit everyday. This can make the process less stressful and more enjoyable.
- save, save, save: too often students lose their work because their hard drive crashes or their flash drive gets lost or stolen. Keep all your important work saved in multiple places and save it often.
- get feedback: you do not have to have everything finished to get help from a peer or the writing center. If you find yourself struggling with a certain part of your writing project, get advice from someone else on how to proceed.
Researchers in rhetoric and composition have discovered that different types of writers have different understandings of the revision process. For instance, Beach (1976) conducted a study in which he compared the revision practices of extensive revisers and nonrevisers. He reported that the extensive revisers looked at their papers holistically, thought the revising process involved “major alternations” (p. 161), and were able to detach themselves and give critical feedback on their drafts. In contrast, the nonrevisers in Beach’s study thought revising meant local, form-based changes, were less self-critical, were reluctant to take risks and make any major changes when revising, and overall showed minimal interest in revision and complained about a lack of time to revise.
A later researcher, Sommers (1980) similarly compared student and experienced writers and analyzed their revision processes. According to Sommers, student writers viewed the revision process as a “rewording activity” and concentrated on problems in isolation, narrowly adhere to rules because they lack revision strategies, and write thesis before they know what they want to say and never deviate from that original idea. In contrast, experienced writers revised to form or reshape their original purpose, think about their audience when revising, revise at both the sentence level and global level, and, perhaps most importantly, viewed revising as a “recursive process” (p. 204). Viewing revising as a recursive process means that it is something that occurs throughout the whole writing process. Instead of leaving revising for the very end, experienced writers are constantly reformulating their ideas and sentences to strengthen their arguments and make them clearer for their audiences.
Confirming the findings of earlier research (Beach, 1976; Sommers, 1980), Faigley and Witte found that the inexperienced writers made mostly surface changes. For instance, 12% of their changes were meaning-based as opposed to 24% and 34% for the advanced students and expert writers. During later drafts, advanced and expert writers made more surface changes while basic writers had stopped revising.
This brief review of work on revision by rhetoric and composition scholars reveals a number of key differences between student writers and experienced writers:
Take a moment to think about your process and reflect on these questions:
- What kind of reviser are you? Do you think you revise more like the inexperienced or experienced writers mentioned in the above studies?
- What do you think the relation is between revision and proofreading? Are the they same thing? Are they both equally important at all stages of the writing process?
- How can you become a better reviser? Think of three ways you can be a better reviser on your next writing project.
This page was created by Todd Ruecker in July 2010.
Fall 2017 Hours
The University Writing Center is open for the Fall 2017 semester. Our hours are Monday - Thursday, 9:00 am to 6:00 pm; Friday, 9:00 am to 2:00 pm; Sunday, Noon to 5:00 pm.
Online consultation are available Monday - Thursday, 9:00 am - 6:00 pm; and Friday, 9:00 am - 2:0o pm
Closed for Labor Day 9-4, Thanksgiving 11-23 and 11-24, and Dead Day 12-8
The University Writing Center is located in the Library, room 227.