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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 can be misleading. It sets out a method for writing the kinds of papers one does for TOEFL exams or SAT exams and short papers in first year composition: often just 5 paragraphs or 3-5 pages: an intro, three to five body paragraphs, and a conclusion. You can be very good at such papers, but they are only one kind of paper. In your history or political science or biology or earth sciences courses you will more frequently be asked to write research papers.

But many of the papers you'll write for courses beyond first year comp are not the kind of paper you can brainstorm for or sit down and write at midnight the evening before it is due. For one thing they are longer, but more important, they generally ask you to solve some kind of problem related to the field in which the class you are taking resides. They ask you to locate, read, and assess scholarship relevant to the project--in short, learn enough to solve the problem the assignment has set for you.

Two things follow from this: 1) procrastination—something that many of us have made a habit—is a really bad strategy, and 2) Pre-writing exercises like brainstorming or free writing--fine for generating material for an SAT essay or even an application for admission to a university--won't substitute for searching out, reading, and integrating your research materials.

But that doesn't mean that writing isn't part of your process anymore. It's just a different kind of writing.

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 important means to expanding and supporting 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 working memory 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: 8410338419, for most of us that number will stay in your mind only a few seconds, if at all.

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 from our working memory by writing them down so they can be sorted, questioned, expanded, replaced, deleted, or made central to one’s next move.

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 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.

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 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 report out your findings.

As a last step in your writing process for assignments like this, there is one last kind of writing to do: W3, or Writing for Language Clarity. This is proof-reading, 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 word, a sentence, 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 and little more. Lots of students worry more about W3 than they should—spelling and punctuation are not in fact all that important compared to the claims and arguments you make in W2. But that doesn't mean that some teachers won't think it's important, so it's still worthwhile to proofread the best that you can.