Research-based articles on Writing Process

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About Writing Processes

While a reasonable facsimile of a writing process can be laid out sequentially, in practice writing is only sometimes a sequential process. Usually, real writers (those who write as a profession or as a serious sideline to their other jobs in life, paid or not paid) move back and forth between the stages as writing progresses or regresses. It is unfortunate that writing is often taught in a way that focuses on process (and which leads to cheating, when students take their final draft, add mistakes to it, and turn it in as an earlier draft) rather than allowing the process to be the background to meaning-making.

Meaning-making is the reason we write, and in the process of writing, we can learn more about our thoughts about a topic, we can investigate ideas related to those topics, and we can examine our logic to find and plug holes in it--or to take a totally different perspective. It is much more difficult to do this in one's head because doing so requires holding a lot of ideas in one's short term memory, and our "RAM" is limited. If we lay out our thoughts as we have them, without thinking about how a final product will be organized, we can explore ideas and develop our perspective on them. We can change our minds. We can write little snippets that can be useful later on.

If, on the other hand, we write totally sequentially, writing a piece from beginning to end, we run the risk of missing out on our possible depth of thinking as well as we miss the holes in our logic, which leads to readers not being convinced about our topic. People do write sequentially--such as writing things that one has thought through or written about in the past. This wiki page is being written beginning to end because the writer has done a lot of thinking and writing about writing as well as a lot of writing in itself. Journalists who have short deadlines probably write sequentially, but only after they have completely absorbed and practiced journalistic writing as a genre. At the same time, there is always a chance that the writer will get disgusted and pitch out the whole thing, which brings us to another point:

We don't have to finish everything we start. Real writers (the only way to get this label is to designate yourself as a real writer) have files upon files of unfinished stuff. Probably most writing never gets finished, although there may be relationships to a piece of finished writing and several unfinished things that precede it. School writing is often deadline-based which encourages sequential writing when, in fact, it might be more useful to explore how writing can help us to clarify ideas.

Writing Practices

Okay, with all these caveats, here is a representation of a writing process that includes the important types of writing practices:

Idea generation:

The writer stares into space. Or freewrites with no pre-determined goal. Or reads something on the web that is provocative to that person. The writer might make lists on a scrap of paper or in a "scrap" file or sticky-note-in-the-cloud app. The writer might also be thinking about how best to present an argument during the process of actually writing. Or the writer might be solving a problem, such as how to get a character out of a mess in a realistic way. What could happen? How could I write this (whole piece, part of a piece)?

Idea collection:

What do others (e.g., researchers in research articles) have to say about this? What ideas do I want to include? These can be scraps of paper, index cards, etc. It could be a file with ideas in a random order.

Organization:

When first developing a writing practice, it is a good idea to print everything out and cut it into discrete pieces--in other words, cut apart a paragraph that has two thoughts in it. If you use index cards, you could use different colors: my ideas would be one color and someone else's ideas would be another color. It's good to develop index cards or scraps of paper with form requirements, such as a thesis that might work or ideas about how to introduce the main body of writing. These could be in a different color.

After the scraps are there (you can add more scraps as you go along, so this is not "after ALL the scraps are there"--just a preponderance), then it's time to lay them out physically.

Generally, start with a thesis statement and put the ideas under that which support your thesis and ideas which refute it. Having done this, think about the order in which to place the ideas. For example, you probably want to start with the biggest supporting idea. Then move through the other supports. You then put the refuting ideas in, usually, as well as your rebuttal to their refuting ("critics say...., however they do not take into account...."). Write this part up and frequently an introduction and a conclusion will come to mind. If you find yourself going into a logical corner, such as when you start to realize that the refuters may have a major point, then you might work on idea generation and collection to explore that situation more.

Crafting

This type of writing is an initial polishing of a part or a whole piece. Reorganization might take place. You might realize that you have two paragraphs stuck into one and separate the ideas. Or you might realize that you need to go into more detail about an idea in order to make it clear. Having a friend read it (one who can leave the final editing process alone--spelling/grammar/etc.) can help at this point. You may have to revisit other stages in order to fully craft something.

Surface features

This is what many people think of as editing, but in fact, it's only a surface-oriented form of editing. Here is where you format footnotes and bibliography, do a spelling check, format the text, ensure that grammar is correct and that you are using words in a reasonable way. This is a type of editing that many writers visit when they are kind of stuck in an other writing process area--it's helpful when you can't come up with a new way to handle a particular issue to go back and format the bibliography. That semi-mindless work can give your brain a rest so that it can come up with solutions to other parts of the writing.

Sometimes teachers or degree programs can get stuck just on surface features, ignoring the meaning-making that is the most important aspect of writing. This is tragic because surface features can be so easily fixed and because frequently an author cannot fix his/her own surface features because of the focus on making meaning. It also means that meaningless junk can become more valuable than something that shows original thought. This kind of focus also makes it much more difficult for people to put their ideas on paper because of the pressure to do everything "right."

Creativity and Writing

One important aspect of writing involves how creativity works in the human mind. Most of these ideas are from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's work on the psychology of creativity, as applied to writing.

Flow

Writing becomes a pleasure when it involves the sense of "flow" as Csíkszentmihályi defines it. Flow is the feeling you get when you are so absorbed in something that you don't notice the passage of time. It is a deeply satisfying state of being because it brings out the best we have to offer as human beings.

Flow can be easily blocked by the various fears we have in relation to our own creative process:
I have to do this exactly right.
I won't be able to come with anything good.
It's due.......now!
My reader/teacher/etc. won't like what I do.
I don't know how to do this.

This is one of the reasons that we need a wide-open mental space to come up with ideas and to play with them (moving pieces of paper around). We need to be able to freewrite to get our ideas down on paper. We need to spend some time in the world of our ideas and unconnected to the world of daily concerns.

How the Mind Works

Actually, there are two aspects to how the brain works in relation to our creation of anything. One is the conscious mind and this is the part of the mind that can impede flow because the conscious mind focuses on technique and worldly concerns (due dates, correctness, etc.).

The other part of the mind is something that is hidden from everyday awareness. The non-conscious part of our mind is where our best ideas come from along with really good ways to solve problems and even ways to get things done before a due date. It's easy for us to not trust this part of the mind because we do not have conscious access to it.

If you have ever gone to bed with a problem and woken up with a solution to it, you have experienced the strengths of this non-conscious part of the brain. If you have ever been on a plateau with practicing a new skill such as a new musical technique, you give up on it for a couple of days, and when you finally try it again, you have it without having consciously practiced it, you have been the beneficiary of your non-conscious mind. This part of the mind works 24/7/365 on things that are important to you.

The conscious mind tends to work in a linear fashion--first this, then this, then this. This is important for us to have this kind of mind so we can get places we need to go, so we can develop self-discipline, so that we know how we fit into our community and world.

The non-conscious mind works associationally--one idea leads to another in non-logical, non-direct ways. Something can look like something else that is completely unrelated in all other ways, and the non-conscious mind will recognize this and find this connection's value in relation to something you care about. The associative mind is the seat of creativity.

Communication Between Two Minds

Of course the non-conscious part of the brain can communicate with the conscious part and vice versa. You can be aware of a deadline on something and your brain will come up with a solution just in time. That's your conscious mind communicating the importance of a deadline.

As well, you can be resting or just waking up and all of a sudden you have a brilliant idea. That's your non-conscious mind communicating with your conscious mind.

The Gist of It

No matter what your conscious mind tells you, pay attention to the ideas you get from the non-conscious part of your mind. You can recognize these because they may seem unrelated or only marginally related and not a logical outcome of a conscious thinking process.

Using a writing process that does not impede flow. This means focusing on meaning-making rather than surface features for most of the writing process. It doesn't mean to spell everything wrong--it simply means to use the surface features you have already mastered to the point that they are automatic, and don't spend a lot of time figuring out if you have the right part of speech. Save that for later.

Trust the unconscious part of your mind. Value it--it can create things that bring you great joy. Trust it even in situations where your are being encouraged not to trust it.

Remember that your non-conscious mind works around the clock, so when you take a break and do something differently, you are actually giving that part of your mind some time to work.

Do not work on something until you are totally frustrated and/or burned out (a little frustration is okay). No matter what the due date is, take that bathroom break or go for a walk, or do something else. When you come back, your mind will be freshened because your non-conscious mind does not like to have your conscious mind put lots of stress on it. This may seem a waste of time, however, when you are frustrated or burned out, your mind is not going to work. It's like running out of gas in your car--no matter how much you want to move forward, if there ain't no gas, it's not gonna happen. The break will cause your mind to work faster when you get back to the task at hand.

Trust yourself. You are creative. If you weren't, you would not have learned something really complicated (language) in three years. This is even more impressive to remember that while you were learning language, you had a cognitively immature brain. Now you have a fully operational set of cognitive skills, so you can move onto even more creativity. Every person is an individual with a different set of ideas, personality, experiences, and so forth. What makes a person unique is where that person's creativity lies. Trust yourself.

Learning Activities

What can you do to help your own writing process? How can you make writing more enjoyable for yourself? How can you make writing desirable and enjoyable for your students? Be sure to document on your portfolio page what you do.