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The Writing Process vs.

Writing to Problem Solve

Writing teachers often talk about “The Writing Process” and when they do they frequently describe 4 stages. I'll describe the traditional stages here, but I'll then immeditely go on to explain what may be for many students a more helpful explanation of college "writing" assignments and how best to approach them.





Sometimes “Publication” will be added as a fifth stage—where “publication” usually means “making your paper public to your teacher or to other students by turning it in.”

Pre-writing is the stage during which you think and make notes about what you might want to write in the paper you have been assigned. There are several common techniques for this: brainstorming, listing, concept mapping, talking to a roommate and then taking notes about what you find yourself saying, freewriting, or just making notes to yourself. You are “writing” during this stage, but for yourself and your thinking processes alone. You are writing only to figure out better what you might be able to write about in the paper itself. That’s why it’s called “pre-” writing: it comes before you are actually clear about what your claim (if it’s an argument paper) will be or how you will support that claim. You are not so much writing your paper during this stage as you are using a special kind of writing-for-yourself to work your way into your paper.

Drafting: Having figured out in your pre-writing what your claim/center is going to be, and what specific evidence or illustration you will use to back up that claim/center, you are then in a position to write your paper. You may do this over days; you may (like many students) do this over a few hours late at night just before the paper is due (though few teachers would recommend the second of those!).

Revising is just that: re-working and polishing your draft once you have written a draft. Revising is meant to make your draft more complete, more readable, better able to convey your thinking.

And then Editing is usually the last step: having finished the thinking and composing part of your process, you now look to make sentences more readable, orrepair grammar or vocabulary or spelling issues or errors—anything that might confuse or put off your readers.

A Different View of the "Writing" Process

To be sure, the Writing Process as a set of steps helps many writers get going on a project, but it doesn’t address something particularly important to college-level writers who are not comfortable with writing: what makes college writing hard often isn't the writing itself as much as it is having to solve some problem first.

Put in different words, a writing assignment and a problem-solving assignment are not the same things. The simple truth is that most of the "writing" you will be asked to do in college is nothing more than the writing up of the solution to a problem your professor has given you. Most profs don't care all that much about your writing, but they really do care about your written accounts of how you solved the problem they gave you.

With that in mind, I suggest a little different version of “The Writing Process” than the traditional five-step model.

Writing in your core/major classes really has just three kinds of “writing”:

Writing to Problem Solve (W1),

Writing to Communicate (W2), and

Writing to Edit (W3).

What follows is a short description of each along with an illustration of how they apply to at least one assignment.

Writing to Problem Solve (Writing 1)

This is writing you do to analyze, understand and clarify the problem your assignment sets for you. It differs from W2 (See next section), by being completely unconcerned with audience. With W1 you are not writing to anyone at all yet, just to yourself.

You might ask: "So if it is to no one, what’s the point?!" I would answer: " Your BRAIN is the point!"

Cognitively speaking, Writing 1 is a means to expand and support the brain’s Working Memory (WM). Because any human being’s WM is quite limited (see Learning About Learning for more on this), most of us can hold in mind only 5-8 pieces of information at once. If, for example, I ask you to remember the number 694 and then ask you 30 seconds later to repeat that number, most of us could do it with high reliability. But if I give you a set of numbers like this: 840338419, for most of us that number will stay in your mind only a few seconds, if at all.

That may not surprise you, but think: why can't you remember a long number? Quite simply it's because your brain can't remember more that a very few things at a time.

More generally, because our minds are limited in how much we can think of consciously, as a rule we can only solve complex problems when we find ways to expand our WM’s space, and one of the best ways, if not THE best way, to do that is to off-load thoughts by writing them down so they can be sorted, questioned, expanded, replaced, deleted, or made central to one’s next move.

Yes, I know, this is still "writing," but it is entirely a matter of writing to yourself--spelling doesn't matter, grammar doesn't matter, even organization doesn't really matter all that much. And even if this sounds weird, the fact is that you have been using writing to expand your working memory’s problem-solving ability for years—it’s just that you’ve been writing numbers instead of words.

Yes—it’s true: you have been writing things down to solve problems since the 3rd grade or earlier, because almost no one can do even a simple arithmetic problem if it has too many numbers to kept track of. 2x6? Easy. No writing. 35x7? harder, but lots of us can do that in our heads. No writing. But 4962x3409? Only the unusual savant can do that one in her head. So we learn to write it down and then go on to do the calculation. (“9 times 2 is 18—write down the 8 and carry the 1…" and so on!”)

So Writing 1 is a great help in solving a problem, and it's role is to help you solve the problem a given assignment has set. With simple essays (like SAT or TOEFL essays) you may not need a lot of W1, but with complex assignments it’s still W1's writing things down along with research that enables your brain to think its way to solving assignment problems effectively.

To illustrate how an assignment can be not so much a "writing assignment" as a "problem solving assignment," here is an abbreviated version of an actual assignment made in a UW World Health Class:

The Culture and Mental Health Project

Students will complete a culture and mental health research project for the course.  

This project will involve choosing a mental health condition that has a culturally specific manifestation (idiom of distress or culture bound syndrome) or a mental health condition (broadly defined) that develops from, or is shaped by, a social/cultural/behavioral process.  

Students will chose their own topic, complete a detailed outline of their paper, and complete a final paper.  

The outline and paper will reflect a detailed review of the literature focused on the mental health problem, a review of culturally-specific aspects of the problem, and potential (culturally appropriate) methods of addressing the problem.

Example titles of projects are ‘Globalization and farmer suicides among rural Kenyan men,’ ‘The legacy of colonialism on substance abuse in the Caribbean’, or ‘Suicide among Information Technology workers in Bangalore, India’.  

That assignment is not asking for a simple five paragraph essay with a claim, three paragraphs of support and a conclusion. Instead it outlines criteria for a research project that requires formulating and solving a set of problems whose conclusions, once reached, are then to be “written up” and submitted.

Its questions that need answering before you can move to W2 (see below!) include: Which culture will you study? What mental health condition fits the requirement that it be developed from or shaped by “a social/cultural/behavioral process”? And what will you have to learn even to decide what you want to study?


So, for this project your problem solving would require you to read, do research, make various choices—and it will help you greatly to be writing notes to yourself as you go. That’s W1 at work—and it is also W1 as you start to draft paragraphs that explain what you have learned.

After a good deal of research and of jotting things down and finding the right words to use, you finally (also using W1) can begin your paper by first writing out a list—what you’ll say first, what second, and so on. Basically that’s writing an outline—another kind of W1 writing whose purpose is to help your brain move from researching and learning to setting up a logical order in which to communicate to your professor the results of your problem-solving.


At this point, having solved the set of problems this assignment has given you, and having figured out what is coming first, second, and so on, you finally move from Writing 1 (W1) to Writing 2 (W2)—or Writing to Communicate.

Now, this kind of writing, too, may seem hard, but because you have used your W1 skills to sketch out your thinking, and because you've by now already made a list of the things you are going to talk about (your "outline"), W2 becomes pretty much a version of speaking on paper (indeed, some people write by dictating to a recording program from notes they’ve written in W1!). Having written out an outline, which really is just a list of things you've decided you need to communicate, you now can just start at the top and fill it in. No fancy language is required (and your word processor will correct the spelling!).

To be sure, a project like this is challenging, but the challenge isn’t so much the “writing” of a paper as it is, first, the challenge of engaging and solving a complex problem, a problem that W1—informal jottings and notes and sentences to help your brain as you go—enables you to solve. And then, via W2, you just report out your findings.

As a last step in your writing process for assignments like this, and once you’ve problem-solved by using W1 to extend your mind (with notes, short paragraphs, lists—whatever works) and then written it all out (W2), there is one last kind of writing to do: W3, or Writing for Language Clarity. This is the point where you go back and read your paper carefully and look for anything that makes your language seem confusing—whether it’s a sentence or a paragraph.

Get help if you need it—this kind of attention to your paper is the equivalent of getting dressed up for a night out. It helps, but it is not really the most important part of any date.