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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, or repair grammar or vocabulary or spelling issues or errors—anything that might confuse or put off your readers.

A (Little Bit) Different View of the "Writing" Process

To be sure, thinking of the Writing Process as a set of steps focused on writing 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 kind of problem first.

Put in different words, a problem-solving assignment certainly can have much in common with a writing assignment, but they aren't always the same things. The simple truth is that most of the "writing" you will be asked to do in college is the writing up of a solution to a problem your professor has given you. Why does this matter? because many students come to college as hesitant or even fearful writers. As such many tend to procrastinate because they are neither comfortable or confident about themselves as writers. But at the university most profs tend not to care as much about your "writing" as they care about how you solve the problem they have given you—a problem which you will first need to solve before you can successfully explain it in writing.

So, in short:

1. Most papers in college ask you to solve problems, and then, only then, write about your solution.

2. That said, most problems professors set for you are complicated enough that you can't just sit down and write about them. You won't be able to write effectively, in fact, until you have first solved the problem you have been given. The good thing to know is that once you have solved the problem you have been given, writing it up becomes pretty straightforward.

So what does all this mean? For many college level papers you can imagine them as made up of three kinds of writing:

1. Writing to Problem-Solve;

2. Writing to Communicate your Solutions; and

3.Writing to be as organized and clear as you are able.


Writing to Problem-Solve (Writing 1)

This is writing you do to analyze, understand and solve the problem your assignment sets for you. It differs from W2 (Writing to Communicate) first by being completely unconcerned with audience: you are not writing to anyone else--just to yourself. That means no one will be correcting you, or asking you questions, or commenting either positively or negatively. In fact, you don't even have to write sentences! Lists, phrases, just ways to remember insights that start to come up in reponse to what your prof has asked you to think about and solve.

But now you might ask: "So if the writing is to no one, then what’s the point?!" And I would answer: "Strangely enough, your BRAIN is the point!"

Here is a very important fact: Cognitively speaking, we human beings can be pretty smart, but when faced with solving a problem we still have to go into solution mode because as smart as we are, there are limits on our conscious minds, of which the greatest limit is the relatively small size of our Working Memories. In fact, most of us can hold in our conscious minds only 5-8 pieces of information at once. That sounds nuts, but you can test yourself with this little set of puzzles:

If 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.

Fortunately, evolutionally we have compensated by hugely increasing the power of our conscious minds (also often referred to as our Working Memory) by learning to write things down--in notes, jottings, scrawled words, broken sentences. We often talk about writing a note to ourselves, and one of most important powers that writing of that kind gives us is the power to problem-solve.

I know that sounds odd, but you have experienced this thousands of times yourself. Indeed, you have experienced it with almost every problem set you have ever faced in a math class since leaving 3rd grade. Take as an example a complex multiplication example like (3519 x 46779). For just about anyone, our working memory can't do that problem in our heads. But of course once you write them down you can multiply one by the other quite easily.

In sum: what may be new here for many is the understanding that what writing can do for math it can also do for other kinds of learning: increase and make more effective the problem solving ability of your working memory!

Writing 1 can be a means to expand and support the brain’s Working Memory (WM), and therefore help you in solving the problem your assignment sets for you. After all, "problems" have to be thought through and solved, and if you sit down to write a paper that asks you to solve a problem that you have not yet solved, it is going to be pretty hard to write a good paper.

But solving problems can require a lot of thinking, and 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 since you are used to it, but think: why can't you remember a long number? If you can memorize a whole speech, why can't you remember a ten digit 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 its 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 more complex assignments it’s still W1's writing things down in lists, brainstorms, short paragraphs, all along making sense of research that enables your brain to solve the assignment's 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 in order to know enough that you can respond appropriately to what the prompt then asks you to do?


For this particular project your problem solving would require you to read, do research, make various choices—and it will help you greatly to be making W1 notes to yourself as you go. That’s W1 at work—and it is only as you first start to draft paragraphs that explain what you have learned that you move to W2—actually communicating to your professor/reader the solution you've come up with to the problem the assignment had set. .

In short: only after a good deal of research and of jotting things down and finding the right words to use, can you really begin your paper by reading, making notes, trying to organize those notes, and then, finally make a list (aka "outline") of what you’ll say first, what second, and so on. So W1 writing is to help your brain move from not really knowing enough to write your paper to researching, making notes, setting out a logical order in which to communicate to your professor the results of your problem-solving, and then, finally, writing up the results of your research.


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 again, the challenge isn’t so much the “writing” of a paper as it is, first, the challenge of engaging, understanding 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, then second, via W2, you organize and report out your findings.

Then as the least important part of the paper-writing process, there is one last kind of work 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, a particular work, or a paragraph.

Get help if you need it—this last kind of attention to your paper is the equivalent of getting dressed up for a night out. Dressing Up helps, but it is not really, one would think, the most important part of any date, though some readers mistakenly think that spelling and verb forms is really important. Sure, getting that stuff in the best shape you can is nice, but it can't hold a candle to the importance of W1 and W2.

Summing up then: Writing in your core/major classes very often can be thought of in terms of three kinds of “writing”:

1. Writing to Problem Solve by extending your brain's Working Memory (Writing 1);

2. Writing to Communicate your solution to the problem(s) the assignment sets for you (Writing 2);

3. Writing to Edit/Clean-up (Writing 3).