II. Getting Started

2.2 What is The Writing Process?

Sarah M. Lacy; Melanie Gagich; and Terri Pantuso

Donald M. Murray, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and educator, presented his important article, “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product,” in 1972.[1] In the article, he criticizes writing instructors’ tendencies to view student writing as “literature” and to focus our attention on the “product” (the finished essay) while grading. The idea that students are producing finished works ready for close examination and evaluation by their instructor is fraught with problems because writing is really a process and arguably one that is never finished.

In the article, Murray explains why writing is an ongoing process:

What is the process we [writing instructors] should teach? It is the process of discovery through language. It is the process of exploration of what we know and what we feel about what we know through language. It is the process of using language to learn about our world, to evaluate what we learn about our world, to communicate what we learn about our world. Instead of teaching finished writing, we should teach unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness.[2]

In your composition courses, you may find that many college writing instructors have answered Murray’s call to “teach writing as a process.” Due to shifting our focus on process rather than product, you will likely find yourself spending a lot of time brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing. Embracing writing as a process helps apprehensive writers see that writing is not only about grammatical accuracy or “being a good writer.” It’s also about what you have to say as a writer and how you join the academic discourse community-at-large. When you embrace writing as a process, you will see it is a method for figuring out your ideas while in the process of drafting. This helps to shape your thinking as you explore through revision. These skills will prove useful beyond the first year writing course as you will use them in your major courses of study, your future career and even in crafting ideas in the everyday world.

The most important lesson to understand about the writing process is that it is recursive, meaning that you need to move back and forth between some or all of the steps. There are many ways to approach this process. Allowing yourself enough time to begin the assignment before it is due will give you time to move from one step to the other and back as needed. This recursive, back and forth process, leads to a more polished final product.

The Writing Process in 6 Steps

The following steps have been adapted from the work of Paul Eschholz and Alfred Rosa, found in their book Subject & Strategy.[3] In the text, the authors focus on discussing writing as a series of steps that can be adapted to meet any writer’s needs. In the following, the steps have been modified to fit the needs of first-year writers. While reading through the steps below, remember that every writer has a unique approach to the writing process. The steps are presented in such a way that allow for any writer to understand the process as a whole so that they can feel prepared when beginning a paper. Take special note of all the tips and guidance presented with each step, as well as suggested further reading, remembering that writing is a skill that needs practice. Make sure to spend time developing your own connection to each step when writing a paper. Figure 2.1.1[4] provides those steps in a visual format.

image was created by Sarah M. Lacy Image of 6 circles arranged hexagonally and connected by arrows. Circle 1: Understand the assignment Circle 2: Gather ideas and form a working thesis/outline Circle 3: Write a draft Circle 4: Revision Circle 5: Proofread/edit final draft Circle 6: Receive feedback/Revise if needed
Figure 2.1.1: The Writing Process

Step 1 – Understand the Assignment

Always read over the entire assignment sheet provided to you by your instructor. Think of this sheet as a contract; by accepting the sheet, you are agreeing to follow all guidelines and requirements that have been provided. This sheet is a direct communication from your instructor to you which typically lays out every expectation and requirement of an assignment. Follow each requirement to ensure you are conducting and completing the assignment properly. Pay attention to key words used in the prompt such as explain, describe, or argue. These keywords are directives that should be used to guide your purpose.

Step 2 – Gather Ideas and Form a Working Thesis

Once you understand the assignment, you will need to collect information in order to understand your topic and decide where you would like the paper to lead. This step can be conducted in various ways. Researching to build content knowledge is always a good place to start this step.

After you have conducted some research, begin brainstorming your topic. You can do this in a variety of ways such as:

  • Free writing
  • Listing ideas
  • Generate a list of questions
  • Clustering/mapping (creating a bubble chart)
  • Create a basic outline

Next, you will want to formulate a central research question that will be revised into a working thesis. A working thesis is different from the thesis found in a final draft in that it will not be specific nor as narrowed as the final thesis. Think of a working thesis as the general focus of the paper, helping to shape your research and brainstorming activities. As you will later spend ample time working and reworking a draft, allow yourself the freedom to revise this thesis as you become more familiar with your topic and purpose. You shouldn’t feel obligated to make your research fit your thesis; rather, revise your thesis to reflect the research you conduct.

Step 3 – Write a Draft

After completing Steps 1 and 2, you are ready to begin putting all parts and ideas together into a full length draft. It is important to remember that this is a first/rough draft, and the goal is to get all of your thoughts into writing, not generating a perfect draft. Do not get hung up with your language at this point; focus on the larger ideas and content instead.

Organization is a very important part of this step, and if you have not already composed an outline or plan during Step 2, consider writing one now. The purpose of an outline is to create a logical flow of claims, evidence, and links before or during the drafting process. Outlines are great at helping you organize your outside sources if you need to use some within a particular assignment. Start by generating a list of claims (or main ideas) to support your thesis and decide which source belongs with each idea, knowing that you may (and should) use your sources more than once, with more than one claim. Experiment with outlines to learn when and how they can work for you. Note there are a variety of formats you might use for outlining your rough draft. Choose the format that works well for your purpose.

Step 4 – Revise the Draft(s)

The revision process is where your topic begins to grow. This is the step in which you are likely to spend the majority of your time. This section is different from simply editing or proofreading because you are looking for larger context issues. For example, the revision step is when you need to check your topic sentences and transitions, make sure each claim matches the thesis statement, and so on. Return to Steps 1 and 2 as needed to ensure you are on the right track and that your draft is properly adhering to the guidelines of the assignment.

The revision portion of the writing process is also where you will need to make sure all of your paragraphs are fully developed as appropriate for the assignment. If you need to have outside sources present, this is when you will make sure that all are working properly together. If the assignment is a summary, this is when you will need to double check all paraphrasing to make sure it correctly represents the ideas and information of the source text.

Step 5 – Proofread/Edit the Draft(s)

Once the larger content issues have been resolved and you are moving towards a final draft, work through the paper looking for grammar and style issues. This step is when you need to make sure that your tone is appropriate for the assignment. For example, you will need to make sure you have remained in a formal tone for all academic papers. Also check to make sure that sources are properly integrated into your own work if your assignment calls for them.

When entering the final step, go back to the assignment sheet, read it over once more in full, and then conduct a close reading. Pay attention to keywords listed in the prompt. Doing this will help you to ensure you have completed all components of the assignment as per your instructor’s guidance.

Step 6 – Turn in the Draft, Receive Feedback, and Revise (if needed)

Once your draft is completed, turned in, and handed back with edits from your instructor, you may have an opportunity to revise and turn in again to help raise your grade. As the goal of the composition class is to improve your writing, this is an essential step to consider so that you get the most out of the course. Ask your instructor for more detail and seek feedback from peer reviewers and your university writing center before submitting a final draft.

Practice Activity

This section contains material from:

Lacey, Sarah M., and Melanie Gagich. “The Writing Process.” In A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing, by Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel. Cleveland: MSL Academic Endeavors. Accessed July 2019. https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/csu-fyw-rhetoric/chapter/3-1-eng-100-101-writing-process/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Archival link: https://web.archive.org/web/20230816162141/https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/csu-fyw-rhetoric/chapter/3-1-eng-100-101-writing-process/ 

  1. Donald Murray, “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product,The Leaflet (November 1972): 11-14.
  2. Donald Murray, "Teach Writing as a Process Not Product," in Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader, rev. 2nd ed., ed. Victor Villanueva (Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003), 4.
  3. Eschholz, Paul and Alfred Rosa. Subject & Strategy: A Writer’s Reader. 11th ed., Bedford/St. Martin, 2007.
  4. Sarah M. Lacy, “The Writing Process,” in A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing, by Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel (Cleveland: MSL Academic Endeavors), accessed July 2019, https://pressbooks.ulib.csuohio.edu/csu-fyw-rhetoric/chapter/3-1-eng-100-101-writing-process/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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2.2 What is The Writing Process? Copyright © 2023 by Sarah M. Lacy; Melanie Gagich; and Terri Pantuso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.