I have said that writing is a process. This idea should not be new to anyone reading this particular article. But what I have learned in my career as a teacher of English and writing is that many writers, especially new writers, often begin writing in the same manner over and over again. Specifically, they begin each project, no matter what that project is, in the same haphazard manner each time. That is, new and beginning writers usually jump, feet first, into a particular assignment without giving much thought about the actual process of the writing itself. Common questions that I often get are: “How do I start?” and “What do I do?”
For those writers who ask themselves those questions, I feel a sense of relief because those are the questions that writers should be asking themselves. What is it that writers are supposed to do when starting a writing assignment or project? The answer is simple: Writers are supposed to follow a particular series of steps when writing, even if the writing projects have changed. Whether a writer is writing an expository text, a work of fiction, or an e-mail to his boss, writers should follow a process when they write, particularly when they want to write well.
I know; I know: “Larry, you have been rambling on and on about this process—will you just get to it and say what the damned process is already. Sheesh!”
Well, there are five steps to the writing process, and those steps are: pre-writing, first draft, editing and revision, proofreading, and final draft. I am sure that none of this is new for anyone reading this discussion. But, believe it or not, many writers begin writing projects completely ignoring these steps. Clearly, there is a direct correlation between well-written projects and the amount of time writers spend on those projects. When writers follow the writing process, then, unquestionably, they produce better writing results. Here is something that I say to my students: You were just given an assignment (an essay) at the end of class. It’s Wednesday night, and the assignment is due the following Wednesday. Well, there are six potential days of when you can work on that assignment. But, if you write that assignment at lunchtime on the day that it is due—or minutes before the assignment is due, then you’re not going to produce your best results.
A writer who wants to produce good results needs to give himself an appropriate amount of time to devote to his writing project. What does that mean? It means that he has to give himself enough time to follow the steps in the writing process.
I have already said that many of my former students have heard me make the sandwich analogy. The analogy is: I do not work behind the counter at a sandwich shop; however, if I did indeed work behind the counter in a sandwich shop, I’m sure that I would be able to make a sandwich. That is, I would be able to follow the process of making sandwiches—even complex sandwiches. Why? Because making a sandwich is a simple process – just like writing. When writers, particularly beginning writers, start the writing process, they need to remember that writing is a series of steps that can, and should, be followed. By making writing a process, writers can demystify many of the ambiguous and problematic aspects of the writing itself and produce better results for their writing projects. Again, it has been my experience that students – beginning writers – often have difficulties with writing because they don’t spend enough time with each of the steps in the writing process. Many of these new writers believe that writing is difficult (actually, I am sure seasoned professionals would also say that writing can be difficult). They believe that writing is a result of natural talent or some inexplicable, ethereal force. And to be honest, yes, there are those with a natural talent at writing, but anyone can become a better writer. It is by following the five steps in the process by which improving his writing could happen. When writers don’t follow this process, this is when difficulty, or poor writing (or both) arises.
Step One: Pre-writing
Pre-writing is the first step in the writing process. For me, it is one of the most important steps in the writing process, and it is often one of the most overlooked steps as well. In this stage, writers generate ideas. Specifically, this is the stage where writers gather information, make details, conduct research, or make lists to get their ideas down in print. I don’t know why many beginning writers overlook this step. This stage of the writing process is crucial to the success of the writing project, and underrating this stage (not completing it—or not completing it thoroughly enough) is a direct path to failure.
Now, I am not stringent or rigid as other English teachers that teach only one form of pre-writing. I believe any activity that a writer can use to help him generate ideas is a useful or worthwhile writing activity. Simply put: if writing ideas down on a napkin while having drinks before dinner is helpful, then a writer should use that napkin – use that activity as a pre-writing stage for writing. However, be careful because too many drinks may make the hand writing difficult to read, if not downright nonsense (not to mention the hangover that follows can be a real drag). . But the point here is to follow the first step in the writing process –a pre-writing activity.
And while I’d like to say that there are many writing activities that involve the consumption of alcohol or other “mood enhancers”, there are many traditional pre-writing activities that do not involve libations whatsoever:
Free writing is a form of writing where writers write extemporaneously. That is, they just write what comes to mind, not paying attention to form or conventions. This is an effective means of getting information down into print form. There are many passing thoughts that can be productive, and by free writing, writers can concentrate on getting down as many ideas and details as possible about their subjects. When free writing, writers should focus on the objective of the assignment or general topic for the 5 to 10 min. Writers should force themselves to continue writing, even if nothing specific comes to mind. This method includes many ideas–even those ideas not directly related to the objective of the assignment. At this point, just generating ideas is what is important.
List-making is exactly what it sounds like. Writers make lists of ideas on a computer screen or sheet of paper. By making lists, writers can organize thoughts in any manner in which they like. Often, when we make lists, we can often see ideas and relationships form. An outline is another form of list making. Here, writers are using traditional, ordered outlines to delineate ideas, subtopics, and details.
Clustering, webbing or mind mapping is a strategy that allows writers to explore the relationships between ideas. The activity begins by placing a subject in the center of the page. A writer should then circle or underline this particular idea. Next as writers think of other ideas, a link to the new ideas to the central ideas should be drawn with a line. As writers think of newer ideas that relate to the new ideas, then those things should be circled and added in the same manner. The result should look like a web on a sheet of paper. When used appropriately, clustering is especially useful in determining the relationship between and among ideas. Writers will be able to distinguish how the ideas fit together, especially when there are many ideas. Clustering lets writers see in a visual manner so that ideas are more readily understood and what possible directions in which a writer may pursue when he is writing.
Questioning, or what is known as the journalists’ questions, traditionally asks six questions. These questions are known as the 5W’s and 1H: Who?, What?, Where?, When?, Why?, How? Writers use these questions to explore a topic. By asking these questions, writers are better able to understand the focus of what it is that they are writing about.
Who?: Who are the participants? Who is affected? Who is the protagonist (if it’s a narrative of sorts)? Who is the antagonist?
What?: What are the topic? What is the theme? What is the conflict? What is the importance of the topic? What is the objective of the assignment or story?
Where?: Where does a story take place? Where does the problem have its source? What is most visible in the environment? What is the environment? What is the importance of the environment? Where are the characters within the environment?
When?: When is the idea (past, present, or future)? When did the problem develop? When is action needed to address the conflict?
Why?: Why did the issue or problem arise? Why has the problem develop in the manner in which it has?
How?: How is the issue or problem significant? How does it affect the characters? How can the conflict be resolved?
When writers ask these questions, they’re using an effective means to generate a great deal of information about their subjects very quickly. This method is an effective method for clarifying ambiguous aspects of writing projects when writers are planning and drafting their ideas.
These are just a few activities that help make pre-writing a more formal aspect of the pre-writing phase of the writing process. The entire point to the pre-writing stage of the writing process is to help writers think about how to develop a topic and to get words on paper. Free writing, list-making, clustering, and questioning are techniques to help writers think about and create material about their subjects, and it is a central part of the writing process.
In all seriousness, it doesn’t matter which of these actives here that a writer follows (or even if he follows any). The point is that he has an activity that will allow him to gather information—generate ideas. A writer should learn what pre-writing activities he enjoys (or the activities in which he excels), so that he can always use that activity and make it part of his own process.