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The Writing Process

Learn more about aspects of the writing process to help you stay motivated and on track with your writing.

Visualize your reader

As explained in Determining Expectations, every time you write for or to someone else, you need to overcome a number of challenges in order to understand and respond to readers’ expectations. For example, you will usually need to explain why the information or the topics of your paper are significant or valuable for your reader. 

In an academic context, successful writing depends on knowing what an instructor, supervisor, committee member, or scholars in your discipline expect you to demonstrate in your paper and why they are requesting that information. After all, their expectations will determine both how you approach the topic and how you choose between and communicate your main ideas. 

Considering the following four questions may therefore help you to identify outcomes and ideas that meet both you and your readers’ goals. This method keeps the writing process focussed on these outcomes by asking:

  1. “What common goal do …you [and your reader] share?” (Flower & Hayes, 1997, p. 458)
  2. “What do you want your reader to know at the end of your paper?” (Flower & Hayes, 1997, p. 459)
  3. “What do you want your reader to think about that information?” (Flower & Hayes, 1997, p. 459)
  4. “What do you want your reader to do?” (Flower & Hayes, 1997, p. 459)

If you find yourself unsure of how to respond to these questions, it may help to ask for more information from your instructor or to even imagine what you would say in a conversation with different types of readers. Unlike freewriting, the goal of this activity is to simulate a conversation with the reader of your paper, rather than to focus too closely on how you would talk or write if no one else were listening. For example, would a government official or business executive be capable of making an informed decision based on how your paper makes them think about the topic? Would any of these readers disagree with or question your points? Why? What can you do differently to help them understand your point of view?

This process does not have to be a hypothetical activity. If you find talking out your ideas is helpful, try talking about your thoughts in conversation with a willing friend, classmate, colleague, or family member. Make note of their questions, reactions, and responses as those will tell you if you're successfully expressing your ideas so that your audience easily understands them.

Reference

Flower, L., & Hayes, J. (1977). Problem-solving strategies and the writing process. College English39(4), 449-461. https://doi.org/10.2307/375768

Visualize your topic

Another way to start "writing" about your topic is to temporarily explore your topic visually instead of writing--or at least, instead of writing in paragraph form. Here are some visual ways you might try representing your ideas to yourself mentally or on paper:

  • If your paper were a movie, or a movie trailer, what would be the first scene? The main characters? How would you portray the plot to the audience? For example, where would the movie be set, and why?
    • You may even experiment by thinking about a specific theatrical genre, such as a musical or play. The point is to think creatively.
  • Picture arranging the information in your paper as items in an art gallery or museum tour. Where would the tour start? What would be its theme? What categories would you use to group and display the items in the museum?
  • Try visualizing your argument as a board game or video game. What would be the objective? What strategy would you use to achieve that objective? Based on that strategy, how would your opponent approach the game? Is your strategy going to "succeed" against even the strongest opponents?
  • Try drawing the relationships between ideas in your paper as part of a concept map, flowchart, or tree diagram. The following tools and resources can give you a structure to start with:

  • Create a table, matrix, or figure that categorizes, displays, or compares some of the important information or topics in your paper. Often, these tables or figures may even help supplement your eventual paper. For more information, please see

Image credit: Mel Poole via Unsplash

Incubate your ideas

If you still are struggling to write down or even (literally) draw out initial ideas related to your topic, don't despair! Often, the most important ideas about your topic will come to you when you are not even trying to write them down. In fact, some authors have suggested that forcing yourself to think of a new idea simply makes it more difficult, although not impossible, to approach your topic creatively (Flower & Hayes, 1977, p. 455). If you are feeling that you've genuinely run out of good ideas, simply write down the best ideas you have so far, set them aside, and plan to return to and improve them the next day, or at the next available time.

Chances are, you'll find yourself involuntarily thinking about your topic when you are busy doing something else, such as reading a book, walking the dog, or doing the dishes. If you think you might have an important idea in these moments, do not let it go! For example, if you are reading, try to notice why you thought of the idea, and put the book away and write down your idea. If you are outside when inspiration hits, keep probing for more ideas and continue focussing on and developing these ideas until you can write them down. If you are with somebody else, you might even tell them what you are thinking about. Even talking to your dog can help you verbalize your idea so that it is easier to recall and record at the earliest opportunity. The key is to keep thinking about your new insight, and make it a point to tell somebody about your idea or write what you have come up with before your forget it. 

Image credit: Maria Fernanda Gonzalez via Unsplash

Reference

Flower, L., & Hayes, J. (1977). Problem-solving strategies and the writing process. College English39(4), 449-461. https://doi.org/10.2307/375768