The Writing Process

Everybody has a writing process. But not everybody has thought much about what that writing process is. So are you like many students? Are writing assignments stress-inducing, nerve-wracking, generally uncomfortable experiences? Do you feel as if you work hard but never get the results you would like or results that reflect all the work you feel you did? No worries—it doesn't need to be this way.

The first step in reducing the anxiety that surrounds writing assignments, especially those involving research, is to take a moment and map out your current writing process. Be as specific as possible. What steps do you take, and in what order?

If you have never thought consciously about your writing process before, now is the time to do so. And truthfully, there is no one "correct" writing process that will ensure an enjoyable writing experience every time along with a perfect grade. But being conscious of what your process is—and of how it could be changed—is an important step toward reducing the anxiety that so many students experience when it comes to writing and research.

So consider where you start. First, you get an assignment from one of your professors. Does panic begin right here? For many, it does. And there is no outright cure for that immediate sense of anxiety. But handling that anxiety effectively—and making sure it doesn't get in the way of you doing your best work—is as simple as having an effective writing and research plan. Here are a few reminders:

  • Write your process down: do not just think about your writing and research process and then try to keep everything straight in your head. Keeping too much material in your mind, without just putting it plainly in front of you on paper, is a major contributor to stress.
  • The writing process is not linear: you do not have to imagine your process as a series of mutually exclusive steps. So do not necessarily think that you have to complete one step before moving to the next. Often, the phases of a research writing process overlap, combine, and feed off each other.
  • Include the same "step" multiple times in your process: for example, brainstorming is not just an early step. It could be useful even once you are well into the writing phase. In the same way, creating an outline after you have produced a first draft, rather than before, can help to show you where you are missing pieces in your essay. And ask yourself where the "research" step could most usefully go, keeping in mind that it might occur at multiple points in the overall writing process.
  • Keep good research notes: there is nothing more frustrating than needing information you know you have read somewhere before—that "perfect quote"—but then can't find. Be sure to take good notes and to record all the bibliographic information about your sources (book/chapter titles, article titles, page numbers, Web addresses, database names, authors, etc.). You will likely need this anyway for your Works Cited page, so you might as well write it down now.

To sum up: there is no one "correct" writing process, nor is there a "correct" place in that process for research to occur. But if you are like most students and writing assignments seem far too stressful, or if you feel like you are working hard on your research essays but never quite getting the results you would like, take a step back and start being as intentional as possible about your writing process. It could be that just one part of the process is missing or in an ineffective place. Sometimes a small change can make a big difference!

And remember, if you've never actually thought about your writing process before, that doesn't mean you don't have one—it just means that your process is probably not as effective as it could be.