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Writing can be daunting. So many of us, whether we are beginning or experienced writers, feel anxious or even paralyzed as we face a new assignment. We may feel discouraged and question our skill because we can't envision a fully-formed essay on the spot.
But it's not actually a bad sign if we can't. As Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” Writing itself will help us form our ideas if we take it step by step. In Section 1.1: Why Study Argument? we suggested that writing helps us think clearly and deeply about a topic. We may start with little to no idea of where we are going, or we may have a working idea. Either way, if we engage in the process, we almost always get to greater insight and clarity for ourselves and our readers.
Below are the common steps most writers follow to move through the early stages of murky thoughts. In general, the order of these steps makes sense, but we are not bound to it. We can customize the process to fit our own style and the particular assignment. The key is to notice what is challenging at each point and find the strategy that will help the most. Often, a question or problem will arise as we work, and returning to an earlier strategy in the writing process can help us resolve the difficulty.
- Studying the prompt: The instructor's guidance can help us focus our efforts from the start so we don't spend time writing something that doesn't fit the assignment.
- Reading and annotating: Reading, rereading, and making notes on other texts is often the first step toward coming up with our own contribution to the larger conversation. As we have seen, most college writing comments on or responds to the arguments of others.
- Generating ideas: Various prewriting strategies can help us decide what to write about and gather specifics to support or explain what we want to say.
- Planning how to organize the ideas: Outlines, formal or informal, can help us structure the essay.
- Drafting: Writing the first version of the essay, often called the rough draft. Most writers go through many drafts.
- Revising: Reconsidering the ideas and content of the essay as well as refining the style and structure of the paper.
- Editing: Correcting grammar, punctuation, spelling, and mechanics. We can also call this proofreading.
- Publishing: Sharing the final draft with others.