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The Writing Process and Writing to Think

Writing teachers often talk about “The Writing Process”; when they do they frequently describe 4 stages:





Sometimes they will add “Publication” 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 repair grammar or vocabulary or spelling issues or errors—anything that might confuse or put off your readers.



The Writing Process: A different View


For many first-year college writers “writing” is not a comfortable thing to do. There are good reasons for that, one of which is that “writing” is not just one skill, but a set of different skills.

Traditional descriptions of the writing process list five “steps,” and each step requires a different kind of thinking


This is a good beginning, but it doesn’t capture something really important to writers who are neither confident nor comfortable with writing. And that’s that there are more kinds of writing than one, and only one of them is the scary kind.

Why does that matter? Because for many students their discomfort and lack of confidence as writers is overwhelming. Writing is not everyone’s favorite thing to do. And writing for school assignments is even less popular.

But beyond another BIG reason students have trouble with writing is that their “writing assignment” is quite often not so much a “writing assignment” as “a problem-solving assignment that, once solved, then needs to be communicated in writing.” Those are two very different things, and the fact that we call Problem-solving Assignments “Writing Assignments” has caused a lot of trouble in this world! It is this confusion that had led many of us to think it is “writing” that is hard, and boring, and frustrating and to be hated and postponed when the real hard part of such assignments is solving whatever problem it has set for you! “I hate to write,” which I have heard a LOT of students say, really results from misunderstanding the process, because 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.  

So I suggest that you think of a little different version of “The Writing Process,” and that is to see that for many college papers there are really three different kinds of “writing” you need to do: Writing to Problem Solve (W1), Writing to Communicate (W2), and Writing to Please Grammarians [aka Editing] (W3). That “writing” is really not what you should be hating may sound crazy, but seeing how that is true can greatly reduce the anxiety so many students feel when asked to “write.” What follows tries to explain that claim!

As I say above, it helps to think about Writing as three different kinds of putting words on paper. Here is an intro to each:


Writing to Problem Solve (W1). This is writing to analyze and understand, to clarify, to find a way to begin to explain a feeling, an inclination. It differs from W2 (See next section) by being completely unconcerned with audience—you are not writing to anyone at all yet, just to yourself. So if it is to no one, what’s the point?! Your BRAIN is the point.

Cognitively speaking, W1 is a means to expand and support the brain’s Working Memory (WM). Because any human being’s WM is very limited (see Learning About Learning near the end of part II for more on this), most of us can only solve complex problems when we find ways of expanding the WM’s space, and one of the best ways most of us have to do that is to off-load thoughts to paper to be sorted, questioned, expanded, replaced, deleted, or made central to one’s next move. And even if this sounds weird, the fact is that you have used 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 3 rd grade or earlier, because almost no one can do even an 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 write it down and do the calculation. (“9 times 2 is 18—write down the 8 and carry the 1…!”) I know, it’s not sentences—but it’s exactly the same principle.

To illustrate, here is an abbreviated version of a writing assignment for a World Health Class:


Culture and Mental Health Project (Outline and Paper)

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 complete a detailed outline of their paper and complete a final paper on their chosen topic.  

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 five paragraph essay with a claim, three paragraphs of support and a conclusion. That is a research project that requires formulating and solving a set of problems whose conclusions, once reached, are then to be “written up” and submitted.

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”? What will you have to learn even to decide what you want to study? For this project you’ll need to read, do research, make choices—and it will help you a lot 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.

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

At this point, having solved the set of problems this assignment has given you, 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 in fact, it’s not. Once you know what you want to say, W2 is 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 an outline, which really is just a list of things you've decided you need to communicate, you 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 the “writing” of a paper! It’s the challenge of 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, report out your findings and recommendations.

Finally, once you’ve problem-solved by using writing to extend your mind (with notes, short paragraphs, lists—whatever works for your own mind—and written it all out, there is one last kind of writing to do: W3, or Writing for Language Clarity. This is the point where you read your paper aloud and listen for anything that makes your language seem confusing—whether it’s a sentence or a paragraph. Get help if you need it—this 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.