The word “process” itself implies doing things in stages and over time. Applied to writing, this means that as you proceed from the beginning of a writing project through its middle and towards the end, you go through certain definable stages, each of which needs to be completed in order for the whole project to succeed.
Composing is very complex intellectual work consisting of many complex mental activities and processes. As we will see in the next section of this chapter, it is often difficult to say when and where one stage of the writing process ends and the next one begins. However, it is generally agreed that the writing process has at least three discreet stages: invention, revision, and editing. In addition to inventing, revising, and editing, writers who follow the process approach also seek and receive feedback to their drafts from others. It is also important to understand that the writing process is recursive and non-linear. What this means is that a writer may finish initial invention, produce a draft, and then go back to generating more ideas, before revising the text he or she created.
Figure 2.1 - The Writing Process. Source: http://www.mywritingportfolio.net
Invention is what writers do before they produce a first complete draft of their piece. As its name suggests, invention helps writers to come up with material for writing. The process theory states that no writer should be expected to simply sit down and write a complete piece without some kind of preparatory work. The purpose of invention is to explore various directions in which the piece may go and to try different ways to develop material for writing. Note the words “explore” and “try” in the previous sentence. They suggest that not all the material generated during invention final, or even the first draft. To a writer used to product-based composing, this may seem like a waste of time and energy. Why generate more ideas during invention than you can into the paper, they reason?
Remember that your goal during invention is to explore various possibilities for your project. At this point, just about the most dangerous and counter-productive thing you can do as a writer is to “lock in” on one idea, thesis, type of evidence, or detail, and ignore all other possibilities. Such a limited approach is particularly dangerous when applied to research writing. A discussion of that follows in the section of this chapter which is dedicated to the application the process model to research writing. Below, I offer several invention, revision, and editing strategies and activities.
These invention strategies invite spontaneity and creativity. Feel free to adjust and modify them as you see fit. They will probably work best for you if you apply them to a specific writing project rather than try them out “for practice’s sake.” As you try them, don’t worry about the shape or even content of your final draft. At this stage, you simply don’t know what that draft is going to look like. You are creating its content as you invent. This is not a complete list of all possible invention strategies. Your teacher and classmates may be able to share other invention ideas with you.
As its name suggests, free writing encourages the writer to write freely and without worrying about the content or shape of the writing. When you free-write, your goal is to generate as much material on the page as possible, no matter what you say or how you say it.
Try to write for five, ten, or even fifteen minutes without checking, censoring, or editing yourself in any way. You should not put your pen or pencil down, or stop typing on the computer, no matter what. If you run out of things to say, repeat “I have nothing to say” or something similar until the next idea pops into your head. Let your mind go, go with the flow, and don’t worry about the end product. Your objective is to create as much text as possible. Don’t even worry about finishing your sentences or separating your paragraphs. You are not writing a draft of your paper. Instead, you are producing raw material for that draft. Later on, you just might find a gem of an idea in that raw material which you can develop into a complete draft. Also don’t worry if anyone will be able to read what your have written—most likely you will be the only reader of your text. If your teacher asks you to share your free writing with other students, you can explain what you have written to your group mates as you go along.
When brainstorming, you list as quickly as possible all thoughts and ideas which are connected, however loosely, to the topic of your writing. As with free writing, you should not worry about the shape or structure of your writing. Your only concern should be to write as long a list of possibilities as you can. As you brainstorm, try not to focus your writing radar too narrowly, on a single aspect of your topic or a single question. The broader you cast your brainstorming net, the better because a large list of possibilities will give you a wealth of choices when time comes to compose your first draft. Your teacher may suggest how many items to have on your brainstorming list. I usually ask my students to come up with at least ten to twelve items in a five to ten minute long brainstorming session, more if possible.
Mind-mapping, which is also known as webbing or clustering, invites you to create a visual representation of your writing topic or of the problem you are trying to solve through your writing and research. The usefulness of mind-mapping as an invention techniques has been recognized by professionals in many disciplines, with at least one software company designing a special computer program exclusively for creating elaborate mind maps.
Here is how mind-mapping works. Write your topic or questions in the middle of a blank page, or type it in the middle of a computer screen, and think about any other topics or subtopics related to this main topic or question. Then branch out of the center connecting the central idea of your mind map to the other ones. The result should like a spider’s web. The figure is a mind-map I made for the first draft of the chapter of this book dedicated to rhetoric.
This invention strategy also asks the writer to create a visual representation of his or topic and is particularly useful for personal writing projects and memoirs. In such projects, memories and recollections, however vague and uncertain, are often starting points for writing. Instead of writing about your memories, this invention strategy invites you to draw them. The advantage of this strategy is that it allows the writer not only to restore these memories in preparation for writing, but also to reflect upon them. As you know by now, one of the fundamental principles of the process approach to writing is that meaning is created as the writer develops the piece from draft to draft. Drawing elements of your future project may help you create such meaning. I am not particularly good at visual arts, so I will not subject you to looking at my drawings. Instead, I invite you to create your own.
Outlining can be a powerful invention tool because it allows writers to generate ideas and to organize them in a systematic manner. In a way, outlining is similar to mind mapping as it allows you to break down main ideas and points into smaller ones. The difference between mind maps and outlines is, of course, the fact that the former provides a visual representation of your topic while the latter gives you a more linear, textual one. If you like to organize your thoughts systematically as you compose, a good outline can be a useful resource when you begin drafting.
However, it is extremely important to observe two conditions when using outlining as your main invention strategy. The first is to treat your outline as a flexible plan for writing and nothing more. The key word is “flexible.” Your outline is not a rigid set of points which you absolutely must cover in your paper, and the structure of your outline, with all its points and sub-points, does not predetermine the structure of your paper. The second condition follows from the first. If, in the process of writing the paper, you realize that your current outline does not suit you anymore, change it or discard it. Do not follow it devotedly, trying to fit your writing into what your outline wants it to be.
So, again, the outline is you flexible plan for writing, not a canon that you have to follow at all cost. It is hard for writers to create a “perfect” or complete outline before writing because the meaning of a piece takes shape during composing, not before. It is difficult, if not impossible, to know what you are going to say in your writing unless and until you begin to say it. Outlining may help you in planning your first draft, but it should not determine it.
Keeping a journal or a writer’s notebook
Keeping a journal or a writer’s notebook is another powerful invention strategy. Keeping a writer’s journal can work regardless of the genre you are working in. Journals and writer’s notebooks are popular among writers of fiction and creative non-fiction. But they also have a huge potential for researching writers because keeping a journal allows you not only to record events and details, but also to reflect on them through writing. In the chapter of this book dedicated to researching in academic disciplines, I discuss one particular type of writing journal called the double-entry journal. If you decide to keep a journal or a writer’s notebook as an invention strategy, keep in mind the following principles:
- Write in your journal or notebook regularly.
- Keep everything you write—you never know when you may need or want to use it in your writing.
- Write about interesting events, observations, and thoughts.
- Reflect on what you have written. Reflection allows you to make that leap from simple observation to making sense of what you have observed.
- Frequently re-read your entries.
It is hard to overestimate the importance of reading as an invention strategy. As you can learn from the chapters on rhetoric and on reading, writing is a social process that never occurs in a vacuum. To get ideas for writing of your own, you need to be familiar with ideas of others. Reading is one of the best, if not the best way, to get such material. Reading is especially important for research writing. For a more in-depth discussion of the relationship between reading and writing and for specific activities designed to help you to use reading for writing, see Chapter 3 of this book dedicated to reading.
Examining your Current Knowledge
The best place to start looking for a research project topic is to examine your own interests, passions, and hobbies. What topics, events, people, or natural phenomena, or stories interest, concern you, or make you passionate? What have you always wanted to find out more about or explore in more depth?
Looking into the storehouse of your knowledge and life experiences will allow you to choose a topic for your research project in which you are genuinely interested and in which you will,therefore, be willing to invest plenty of time, effort, and enthusiasm. Simultaneously with being interesting and important to you, your research topic should, of course, interest your readers. As you have learned from the chapter on rhetoric, writers always write with a purpose and for a specific audience.
Therefore, whatever topic you choose and whatever argument you will build about it through research should provoke response in your readers. And while almost any topic can be treated in an original and interesting way, simply choosing the topic that interests you, the writer, is not, in itself, a guarantee of success of your research project.
Here is some advice on how to select a promising topic for your next research project. As you think about possible topics for your paper, remember that writing is a conversation between you and your readers. Whatever subject you choose to explore and write about has to be something that is interesting and important to them as well as to you. Remember kairos, or the ability to "be in the right place at the right time, which we discussed in Chapter 1.
When selecting topics for research, consider the following factors:
- Your existing knowledge about the topic
- What else you need or want to find out about the topic
- What questions about or aspects of the topic are important not only for you but for others around you.
- Resources (libraries, internet access, primary research sources, and so on) available to you in order to conduct a high quality investigation of your topic.
Read about and “around” various topics that interest you. As I argue later on in this chapter, reading is a powerful invention tool capable of teasing out subjects, questions, and ideas which would not have come to mind otherwise. Reading also allows you to find out what questions, problems, and ideas are circulating among your potential readers, thus enabling you to better and quicker enter the conversation with those readers through research and writing.
Explore "Writing Activity 2B: Generating Topics" in the "Writing Activities" section of this chapter.
If you have an idea of the topic or issue you want to study, try asking the following questions
- Why do I care about this topic?
- What do I already know or believe about this topic?
- How did I receive my knowledge or beliefs (personal experiences, stories of others, reading, and so on)?
- What do I want to find out about this topic?
- Who else cares about or is affected by this topic? In what ways and why?
- What do I know about the kinds of things that my potential readers might want to learn about it?
- Where do my interests about the topic intersect with my readers’ potential interests, and where they do not?
Which topic or topics has the most potential to interest not only you, the writer, but also your readers?
Designing Research Questions
Assuming that you were able to select the topic for your next research project, it is not time to design some research questions. Forming specific and relevant research questions will allow you to achieve three important goals:
- Direct your research from the very beginning of the project
- Keep your research focused and on track
- Help you find relevant and interesting sources