Even the most talented writers rarely get a piece right in their first draft. What’s more, few writers create a first draft through a single, sustained effort. Instead, the best writers understand that writing is a process: it takes time; sustained attention; and a willingness to change, expand, and even delete words as one writes. Good writing also takes a willingness to seek feedback from peers and mentors and to accept and use the advice they give. In this book, we will refer to and model the writing process, showing how student writers like yourself worked toward compelling papers about literary works.
In this video (bigthink.com/ideas/25140), the decorated modern novelist Salman Rushdie, the author of such books as Midnight’s Children and Haroun and the Sea of Stories, talks about his own writing process.Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (New York: Penguin, 1991); Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (New York: Random House, 2008). Writing, Rushdie insists, “is not inspiration; it’s concentration.”Salman Rushdie, “Inspiration Is Nonsense,” interview by Max Miller, directed by Jonathan Fowler, Big Think, video, November 29, 2010, bigthink.com/ideas/25140. Rushdie even calls the idea of pure inspiration “nonsense,” saying that writing is “exploratory” and “more a process of discovery.”Salman Rushdie, “Inspiration Is Nonsense,” interview by Max Miller, directed by Jonathan Fowler, Big Think, video, November 29, 2010, bigthink.com/ideas/25140. Rushdie is talking about writing fiction, but his insight applies just as well to writing critical papers for a college class: good academic writing requires that you devote time and energy to exploring and discovering new ideas. Fortunately, this means you should not panic if a brilliant paper idea doesn’t appear when you first start thinking about a paper topic. If you commit to the writing process the ideas will come.
- How do you typically approach writing assignments in your classes? When do you start working? Do you employ any prewriting techniques?
- Have you ever been given the chance to revise your writing after receiving feedback from your peers or your instructor? How did the act of revising change your relationship to your paper?
Good writing takes, above all, planning and organization. If you wait until the night before a written assignment is due to begin, your hurrying will supersede the necessary steps of prewriting, researching, outlining, drafting, revising, seeking feedback, and re-revising. Those stages look something like this:
Many of the activities we’ll ask you to do in the “Your Process” sections of this book will be prewriting activities. We’ll ask you to reflect on your reading, to make connections between your experiences and our text, and to jot down ideas spurred by your engagement with the theories presented here. It’s from activities like these that writers often get their ideas for writing. The more engaged you are as a reader, the more engaged you’ll be when the time comes to write.
This book will also help you start the research process, in which you hone in on those aspects of a given literary text that interest you and seek out a deeper understanding of those aspects. Literary researchers read not only literary texts but also the work of other literary scholars and even sources that are indirectly related to literature, such as primary historical documents and biographies. In other words, they seek a wide range of texts that can supplement their understanding of the story, poem, play, or other text they want to write about. As you research, you should keep prewriting, keeping a record of what you agree with, what you disagree with, and what you feel needs further exploration in the texts you read.
To write well you should have a plan. As you write, that plan may change as you learn more about your topic and begin to fully understand your own ideas. However, papers are easier to tackle when you first sketch out the broad outline of your ideas. Committing those ideas to paper will help you see how different ideas relate to one another (or don’t relate to one another). Don’t be afraid to revise your outline—play around with the sequence of your ideas and evidence until you find the most logical progression.
The most important way to improve your writing is to start writing! Because you’re treating writing as a process, it’s not important that every word you type be perfectly chosen, or that every sentence be exquisitely crafted. When you’re drafting, the most important thing is that you get words on paper. Follow your outline and write.
After you’ve committed words to paper (or, more accurately, to your computer screen), you can go back and shape them more deliberately through revision. Cognitive research has shown that a significant portion of reading is actually remembering. As a result, if you read your work immediately after writing it, you probably won’t notice any of the potential problems with it. Your brain will “fill in the gaps” of poor grammar, misspelling, or faulty reasoning. Because of this, you should give yourself some time in between drafting and revising—the more time the better. As you revise, try to approach your text as your readers will. Ask yourself skeptical questions (e.g., Are there clear connections between the different claims I’m making in this paper? Do I provide enough evidence to convince someone to believe my claims?). Revisions can often be substantial: you may need to rearrange your points, delete significant portions of what you’ve written, or rewrite sentences and paragraphs to better reflect the ideas you have developed while writing. Most importantly, you should revise your introduction several times. Writers often work into their strongest ideas, which then appear in their conclusions but not (if they do not revise) their introductions. Make sure that your introduction reflects the more nuanced claims that appear in the body and conclusion of your paper.
Even after years of practice revising your writing, you’ll never be able to see your writing in an entirely objective light. To really improve your writing, you need feedback from others who can identify where your ideas are not as clear as they should be. You can seek feedback in a number of ways: you can make an appointment in your college’s writing center, you can participate in class peer-review workshops, or you can talk to your instructor during his or her office hours. If you will have a chance to revise your paper after your instructor grades it, his or her comments on that graded draft should be considered essential feedback as you revise.
A key notion that drives this textbook is peer review: we believe that you should share your writing with your peers, your classmates. For each chapter in this book, we suggest that you conduct peer review with one or two classmates. We provide peer-review guides for each chapter that can be accessed in Chapter 10.
One you’ve garnered feedback on your writing, you should use that feedback to revise your paper yet again. You should not, however, simply make every change that your colleagues or instructor recommended. You should think about the suggestions they’ve made and ensure that their suggestions will help you make the argument you want to make. You may decide to incorporate some suggestions and not others. When you treat writing as a process, it should become a genuine dialogue between you and your readers.
Finally, you will submit your paper to an audience for review. As college students, this primarily means the paper that you turn in to your instructor for evaluation.
The preceding categories suggest that writing is a linear process—that is, that you will follow these steps in the following order:
The reality of the writing process, however, is that as you write you shuttle back and forth in these stages. For example, as you begin writing your thesis paragraph, the beginning of your essay, you will write and revise many times before you are satisfied with your opening; once you have a complete draft, you will more than likely return to the introduction to revise it again to better match the contents of the completed essay. This shuttling highlights the recursive nature of the writing process and can be diagrammed as follows:
Furthermore, you should be aware that each writer has a unique writing process: some will be diligent outliners, while others may discover ideas as they write. There is no right way to write (so to speak), but the key is the notion of process—all strong writers engage in the writing process and recognize the importance of feedback and revision in the process.
- Describe your writing process.
- Do you normally engage in the stages listed previously?
- If not, why? If so, what part of the process do you find most helpful?
- Share your process with the class to discover the variety in approaches writers take when writing.