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2.3 An Overview of the Writing Process

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain how writing takes both time and effort, and discuss effective ways to go about it.
  2. Discuss how the writing process is not linear but recursive, moving back and forth from invention to revision.
  3. Reveal how learning to write analytically can lead to success in many areas of life outside of the classroom.

Once you’ve chosen a subject, initially considered how your beliefs, culture, and experiences might influence how you see it, and consulted other sources for background information and differing perspectives, you can begin to draft your essay. But before you can actually sit down to formally write your essay, you have to actually, well, sit down and write. Be careful not to try to produce a formal draft too soon because sometimes you can get writer’s blockA psychological state in which one is unable to continue the process of writing, usually due to the desire to produce a final draft before considering the ideas more fully. when you haven’t taken the time to thoroughly explore your ideas. If you get stuck and do not know where to begin your analysis, go back and write out your thoughts less formally. This will help you to think (and get more excited) about what you want to write. At the same time, don’t wait too long to get started, because motivation usually comes after you’ve begun the process. Often when you force yourself to start writing you will discover new insights that will ignite your desire to find even more. Personally, I seldom feel like sitting in front of the computer and wracking my brain for another writing session, but once I get started and become excited by what I produce, several hours may just zoom by without me even noticing.

Of course, this happens only when I get into the act of writing itself and shut off the voices of self-doubt. Like most of you, I carry a committee of past teachers and critics in my head, a committee that constantly questions every word I write: “Can’t you find a better way to put that? You’re an English Professor, so you should know exactly what to say the first time through! This piece of writing is terrible and it will prove to everyone that you were an imposter all of these years.” Thoughts like these do not, of course, motivate me, but instead make me want to exit my writing program and switch to a more relaxing file like Spider Solitaire. To get anything accomplished, therefore, I first have to make a deal with these voices of self-doubt — if they will be quiet long enough to let me get out a draft, then I will review my essay with a more critical eye later.

I don’t want to give the impression, however, that writing is a linear procedure, moving steadily from invention to writing to revising. Instead, writing is a recursive processA process, like writing, that moves back and forth between its various aspects without a set sequence or order. in which all of these functions may go on simultaneously. I see writing more as an increasingly complicated discussion between writers and their words. As I put the words down on paper or on the computer screen, I take a step back, consider their implications, and add, delete, rearrange, or modify them until they express my view in a clear, precise, and thorough manner. This often takes several drafts. Writing is not a skill (something you can master after a few lessons), but an art, and, like any art, you can never perfect it. In fact, the better you get at it, the more time and effort you need to devote to it. Any child can learn to play “Chopsticks” on the piano before even having a formal lesson; however, a concert pianist must spend hours practicing everyday before being satisfied with a performance. Likewise, when I was in high school, I would write only one draft of my essay before handing it in, but now I often produce as many as thirty drafts before I submit a book or article for publication.

To help your writing go more smoothly, find a good place to work, relatively free of distraction, and set aside a certain amount of time you plan to devote to the assignment. Ideally, I like to spend between two to three hours a day writing because less than that does not give my ideas adequate time to develop, but more than that tends to make me feel like I’ve exerted my analytical muscles too hard (which is another reason not to wait to begin the essay until the day before the assignment is due). I also try to break the writing into smaller tasks, focusing on one section of my analysis at a time, to avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project, reminding myself that the section I work on might appear anywhere in the finished draft and that I do not have to write the essay in the same sequence that it will later be read. I can always change the order after I have a chance to articulate my thoughts more fully.

By this I do not mean that you should write in the exact manner that I or anyone else does. Some writers like to outline their papers before they begin; others like to discover their ideas while composing. Some like to begin their assignments early, and others get added inspiration from the adrenaline of a looming deadline. Additionally, your composing process may vary, depending on your subject and the nature of the assignment. For instance, if you know a subject well, you may not need to do as much additional background reading as you would when tackling one that’s less familiar, and if the assignment does not allow you to hand in additional revisions, you might want to start it earlier to make certain that you have the time to fully develop your main ideas.

Having said all this, there is a common way that most of us go about forming an analysis, at least initially. As you will see in Chapter 3, once you’ve learned something about a subject and considered your general feelings toward it, you can carefully examine the key examples to establish your main perspective or working theses. Afterward, as you will see in Chapter 4, you can modify and justify these perspectives by explaining how you derived them and by considering their broader implications. Finally, as you will see in Chapter 5, you can structure your thoughts into a deliberate and effective essay. Of course, as you go through this process, you may continue to examine and even question your own beliefs and consult additional sources. As Burke implies in his parlor parable, the process is never ending, but eventually we all leave the discussion of our subjects to concentrate on other concerns. Yet at the same time, be careful not to give up too quickly and merely throw out the most obvious statements that occur to you. To contribute something worthwhile to this ongoing discussion, you need to slow down the process of analysis to fully consider the relevance of each of its features. Doing so will not only help you to understand and appreciate the subjects you analyze for your classes, but also can make you more successful in your future endeavors.

Whether you go into business, medicine, law, or any other profession, you will be expected to develop, present, and defend your opinions. Simply having a wealth of factual knowledge will continue to have less and less importance in this information age, where people can get basic answers by picking up their cell phones or searching with Google. More significantly, when people cease to think critically and analyze established knowledge, both social and academic progress stagnates. Just imagine what the world would be like today if teachers had given up on analysis five hundred years ago and continued to allow students only to memorize what we knew then about all academic subjects. We’d still be living in a feudal society, riding around on horses, and facing a life expectancy of around thirty-five.

Furthermore, analysis can also help us to understand and change those parts of our lives that often matter more to us than our careers and contributions to academic knowledge. We don’t have to take Socrates’ phrase “the unexamined life is not worth living” as seriously as Thoreau did and escape to a cabin in the woods to look at ourselves without distraction. Yet we can all benefit from slowing down from time to time to think about our daily activities, key relationships, and future goals and consider how we might make each more fulfilling. If we learn to examine and avoid the mistakes we made in the past, we are more likely to take control of the present and move toward a more promising future.

Exercise

Think of a social issue or personal concern that has been troubling you as of late. Write down all your thoughts without stopping and don't be concerned if your writing seems scattered or informal because you can fix these problems at a later stage. Now look over what you just wrote and underline the five most important words. Next, write a sentence in which you use all five of those words, perhaps in a different order and manner than they initially came out. Now write a paragraph based on that sentence. In the process, how did your writing evolve? Did any sections become clearer? Did your perspective change? Consider how writing is a process that constantly moves you in directions you might not have anticipated.

Key Takeaways

  • Writer’s block occurs when we become too critical of our thoughts and expressions before we have a chance to develop them.
  • Writing is a recursive process of forming, developing, and clarifying our ideas, causing them to evolve in unexpected directions.
  • To produce ideas worth sharing, we need to slow down the process of analysis, taking the time to carefully examine each of its components.