In this step-by-step support area, you will find everything you need to know about writing a paper from start to finish.
Have you ever received a writing assignment, thought “this won’t take long” and then stayed up all night writing the night before your assignment was due because it ended up taking a lot longer than you thought it would? If you have, you’re not alone. Many beginning writers struggle to plan well when it comes to a writing assignment, and this results in writing that is just not as good as it could be. When you wait until the last minute and fail to engage in a good writing process, you’re not doing your best work—even if you did “get all A’s in high school” as a procrastinator.
Research on writing tells us that the best thing writers can do to improve their writing is improve their writing process! With that in mind, this area of the online writing lab is going to take you through the steps of a thorough writing process—one that involves many stages that will help you become a better writer.
You will learn about the recursive nature of the writing process, and you’ll be taken through each step of writing a paper with instruction, activities, and videos. With support for prewriting activities, you’ll learn how to generate and organize your ideas, and with support for paragraph building, you’ll learn how to turn those ideas into well-organized paragraphs. You’ll also learn about how rhetoric can help make your writing stronger, and you can even get some advice from fellow students about what to expect in college writing courses. If you’re writing a paper and need help with any of the steps along the way, The Writing Process area is here to help.
It’s a toy that can serve as a metaphor for the writing process.
A Slinky is one piece of material that’s coiled in many loops. Writing is a large process that’s made up of smaller ones—processes that connect and loop around each other. A Slinky, after the first nudge, travels down stairs on its own, step by step. An experienced writer, after the first nudge of an idea or observation, moves through the writing process step by step, with the option to loop back up the stairs as well as down. Okay, that’s as far as the metaphor stretches (and yes, that’s a bad pun). But you get the idea through the visual example.
Writing is the tangible result of thinking. And learning how to think—how to develop your own ideas and concepts—is the purpose of a college education. Even though the end result of writing is a product, writing itself is a process through which you ask questions; create, develop, hone, and organize ideas; argue a point; search for evidence to support your ideas…and so on. The point here is that writing really involves creative and critical thinking processes. Like any creative process, it often starts in a jumble as you develop, sort, and sift through ideas. But it doesn’t need to stay in disarray. Your writing will gain direction as you start examining those ideas. It just doesn’t happen all at once. Writing is a process that happens over time. And like any process, there are certain steps or stages.
When you receive your writing assignment from your professor, it’s important to stop and think about your assignment. What are the requirements? What is the purpose of this assignment? What is your professor asking you write? Who will be your audience?
Before you begin to write any part of an essay you have been assigned, it’s important to first carefully consider your assignment. You must think about the requirements and how you plan to meet those requirements. All too often, students make the mistake of jumping into an assignment without stopping to think about it rhetorically.
What does it mean to think about an assignment rhetorically?It means that you’re being considerate of the purpose of the assignment, the audience for the assignment, the voice you might want to use when you write, and how you will approach the assignment effectively overall.Each time you are presented with a writing assignment in college, you’re being presented with a particular situation for writing. Learning about rhetoric can help you learn to make good decisions about your writing. Rhetoric can be simply defined as figuring out what you need to do to be effective, no matter the writing situation.
Thinking rhetorically is an important part of any writing process because every writing assignment has different expectations. There is no such thing as right, when it comes to writing; instead, try to think about good writing as being writing that is effective in that particular situation.
The following video presentation will help you as you begin to think about your assignments rhetorically. It’s so important to stop and think about what you are being asked to write about and why before you begin an assignment.
Writers need to have something to write about. In college, you’ll be expected to provide your own observations and ideas. Even in a research paper on an assigned topic, you’ll be expected to offer your own thinking about what your sources say. The purpose of writing in college is to show your own analysis and thought processes on the concepts that you’re learning about.
Writers develop ideas in many ways, including the following:
You will find each of these options explained in more detail in the Prewriting Strategies section of this online writing lab. If you do not already have a strong prewriting process, you should try out several of the strategies to see what works best for you.
Once you have decided what you want to write about, you need to stop and consider if you have chosen a feasible topic that meets the assignment’s purpose.
If you have chosen a very large topic for a research paper assignment, you need to create a feasible focus that’s researchable. For example, you might write about something like the Vietnam War, specifically the economic impact of the war on the U.S. economy.
If you have chosen a topic for a non-research assignment, you still need to narrow the focus of the paper to something manageable that allows you to go in-depth in the writing. For instance, you might have a goal of writing about the nursing profession but with a specific focus on what the daily routine is like for a nurse at your local pediatric hospital.
The important thing is to think about your assignment requirements, including length requirements, and make sure you have found a topic that is specific enough to be engaging and interesting and will fit within the assignment requirements.
It’s easier to gather information once you have a relatively narrow topic. A good analogy is when you conduct a search in an online database. You’ll get thousands (if not more) entries if you use the key words Vietnam War as opposed to fewer and more focused entries if you use terms related to economic impact of the war on the U.S.
Or, if you’re analyzing The Great Gatsby, you’ll be able to gather more specific information from the novel if you focus on a character, a theme, etc. instead of all elements of the novel at once.
It may help to use the image of a hand fan in order to understand gathering information. Think of your narrow topic as the end of the fan, the point at which all of the slats are linked together. As you gather information about your narrow topic, the fan spreads out, but the information is still all connected to the narrow topic.
You might use a general reference source, such as an encyclopedia, a textbook, a magazine, or a website to get a broad view of the issues related to a topic. This, in turn, helps you think of ways to narrow the topic in order to create a focused piece of writing.
However, it’s important to remember that sources like encyclopedias should be starting points only and should not be the kinds of sources you use in most college-level essays.
Before you begin to draft, it can be helpful to create an outline to help you organize your thoughts. You can refer to the prewriting if you have organized thoughts already using a prewriting strategy, such as mapping. The important thing is to list out your main ideas, including your thesis, to help you visualize where you are going with your essay. An outline will also help you see before you begin drafting if your ideas will support your thesis.
The actual writing occurs after you have a focus and enough information to support that focus. Drafting involves making choices about how much information to offer and what information to put where. Your outline will be a guide, but you may find that you need to revise the order once you begin drafting.
Consider the following points as you draft:
Drafting consists of building the paragraphs of your writing and linking them together. And, remember, your draft you create at this point is not your final draft. There are additional steps of the writing process to consider before you are ready to submit your work.
Many students often try to lump revising and editing into one, but they are really two separate activities. Revising is about your content while editing is about sentence-level issues and typos. It’s important to remember to allow yourself time to complete both parts of this process carefully.
Revision is about seeing your writing again. Revising is an important step in the writing process, because it enables you to look at your writing more objectively, from a reader’s view. Set your writing aside for a time. Then go back to it and work from big to small as you ask and answer revising questions.
As you see, these basic revision questions concern themselves with the amount, clarity, and order of information. That’s what the revision process is all about—making sure that your concepts and supporting information are presented in the clearest, most logical way for most readers to understand.
Once you deal with the big things (amount and order of information), then you can move to the small things—the language, grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Once you have your content the way you want it and have completed your revisions, it’s time to think about editing your paper. When you edit, you are looking for issues with sentence structure, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc. And, when you edit, it’s important to realize that it’s difficult to catch all of these errors in one editing pass. A thorough editing process is one that involves several editing passes. Research on student writing indicates that most of the errors in college essays are related to careless editing. With that in mind, it’s important to take steps to ensure you are engaging in a good editing process.
In order to help you have a better idea about how a strong writing process will help you as you write your own essay, for each section of The Writing Process area of the Excelsior OWL, you’ll see a demonstration of how a student might approach each step. In this first section, you’ll see the student’s assignment sheet and hear a discussion of the key things she must consider for her assignment.
Then, for each of the other sections of The Writing Process—Prewriting Strategies, Audience Awareness, Voice, Introductions & Conclusions, Parts of a Thesis Sentence, Paragraphing, Essay Writing, and Revising & Editing, you’ll see how the student approaches these steps given her specific assignment. As you watch each step, you’ll want to think about how you might apply each step to your own assignment, as you’ll be given a chance to engage in each step with your own writing assignment.
Now that you have seen how the student in the video approached her assignment, it’s your turn to examine your own writing assignment. As you do, it’s a good idea to write some ideas or notes in a writing journal. In your writing, you should to the following questions about your assignment:
What is the purpose of my assignment, or what is my professor asking me to do with this assignment?
Who is my audience for this assignment? Did my professor specify an audience? If not, who can I assume is my intended audience?
What ideas do I have for a topic that might work for this assignment? Do I have freedom with my topic, or do I have to choose from a specific list?
How can I apply a strong writing process to my approach for this assignment? What is my plan here?
Before you begin to gather ideas during the prewriting process, it’s important to make sure you understand what you are being asked to do by your professor’s assignment. You should share your responses to these questions with your classmates to see if they have the same or similar responses. What questions might you have for your professor?
Learn about the recursive nature of the writing process.
Learn the following pre-writing skills:
Learn the following audience awareness skills:
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