To create anything, we generally break the work down into a series of steps. We follow a recipe (or the directions on a box) to bake a cake; we break a song down into different parts and the music into various chords to arrange a piece of music. So it is when we write. We rely on various processes to get from a blank page to a finished product. The chapters that follow offer advice on some of these processes—from GENERATING IDEAS to DRAFTING, to GETTING RESPONSE, to EDITING, to COMPILING A PORTFOLIO, and more.

Generating Ideas and Text

All good writing revolves around ideas. Whether you're writing a job application letter, a sonnet, or an essay, you'll always spend time and effort generating ideas. Some writers can come up with a topic, put their thoughts in order, and flesh out their arguments in their heads, but most of us need to write down our ideas, play with them, tease them out, and examine them from some distance and from multiple perspectives. This chapter offers activities that can help you do just that. Freewriting, looping, listing, and clustering can help you explore what you know about a subject; cubing and questioning nudge you to consider a subject in new ways; and outlining, letterwriting, and discovery drafting offer ways to generate a text.


An informal method of exploring a subject by writing about it, freewriting ("writing freely") can help you generate ideas and come up with materials for your draft. Here's how to do it:

  1. Write as quickly as you can without stopping for 5–10 minutes (or until you fill a page or screen).
  2. If you have a subject to explore, write it at the top of the page and then start writing, but if you stray, don't worry—just keep writing. If you don't have a subject yet, just start writing and don't stop until the time is up. If you can't think of anything to say, write that ("I can't think of anything to say") again and again until you do—and you will!
  3. Once the time is up, read over what you've written, and underline passages that interest you.
  4. Then write some more, starting with one of those underlined passages as your new topic. Repeat the process until you've come up with a usable topic.


Looping is a more focused version of freewriting; it can help you to explore what you know about a subject. You stop, reflect on what you've written, and then write again, developing your understanding in the process. It's good for clarifying your knowledge of a subject and finding a focus. Here's what you do:

  1. Write for 5–10 minutes, jotting down whatever you know about your subject. This is your first loop.
  2. Read over what you wrote, and then write a single sentence summarizing the most important or interesting idea. You might try completing one of these sentences: "I guess what I was trying to say was . . . " or "What surprises me most in reading what I wrote is . . . " This will be the start of another loop.
  3. Write again for 5–10 minutes, using your summary sentence as your beginning and your focus. Again, read what you've written, and then write a sentence capturing the most important idea—in a third loop.


Some writers find it useful to keep lists of ideas that occur to them while they are thinking about a topic. Follow these steps:

  1. Write a list of potential topics, leaving space to add ideas that might occur to you later. Don't try to limit your list—include anything that interests you.
  2. Look for relationships among the items on your list: what patterns do you see?
  3. Finally, arrange the items in an order that makes sense for your purpose and can serve as the beginning of an outline for your writing.


Clustering is a way of generating and connecting ideas visually. It's useful for seeing how various ideas relate to one another and for developing subtopics. The technique is simple:

  1. Write your topic in the middle of a sheet of paper and circle it.
  2. Write ideas relating to that topic around it, circle them, and connect them to the central circle.
  3. Write down ideas, examples, facts, or other details relating to each idea, and join them to the appropriate circles.
  4. Keep going until you can't think of anything else relating to your topic.

You should end up with various ideas about your topic, and the clusters will allow you to see how they relate. Here's an example of a cluster on the topic of "soft drinks." Note how some ideas link not only to the main topic or related topics but also to other ideas.


A cube has six sides. You can examine a topic as you might a cube, looking at it in these six ways:

  • DESCRIBE it. What's its color? shape? age? size? What's it made of?
  • COMPARE it to something else. What is it similar to or different from?
  • Associate it with other things. What does it remind you of? What connections does it have to other things? How would you CLASSIFY it?
  • ANALYZE it. How is it made? Where did it come from? Where is it going? How are its parts related?
  • Apply it. What is it used for? What can be done with it?
  • ARGUE for or against it. Choose a position relating to your subject, and defend it.


It's always useful to ask questions, starting with What? Who? When? Where? How? and Why? One method of exploring a topic is asking questions as if the topic were a play. This method is particularly useful for exploring literature, history, the arts, and the social sciences. Start with these questions:

  • What? What happens? How is it similar to or different from other actions?
  • Who? Who are the actors? Who are the participants, and who are the spectators? How do the actors affect the action, and how are they affected by it?
  • When? When does the action take place? How often does it happen? What happens before, after, or at the same time? Would it be different at another time? Does the time have historical significance?
  • Where? What is the setting? What is the situation, and what makes it significant?
  • Why? Why did this happen? What are the actors' motives? What end does the action serve?
  • How? How does the action occur? What are the steps in the process? What techniques are required? What equipment is needed?


You may create an informal outline by simply listing your ideas and numbering them in the order in which you want to write about them. You might prefer to make a working outline, to show the hierarchy of relationships among your ideas. While still informal, a working outline distinguishes your main ideas and your support, often through simple indentation:

First main idea
  Supporting evidence or detail
  Supporting evidence or detail
Second main idea
  Supporting evidence or detail
  Supporting evidence or detail
A formal outline shows the hierarchy of your ideas through a system of indenting, numbering, and lettering. Remember that when you divide a point into more specific subpoints, you should have at least two of them—you can't divide something into only one part. Also, try to keep items at each level parallel in structure. Formal outlines work this way:

Thesis statement
  1. First reason
    1. Supporting evidence
      1. Detail of evidence
      2. Detail of evidence
    2. Supporting evidence
  2. Another reason
Writing out a formal outline can be helpful when you're dealing with a complex subject; as you revise your drafts, though, be flexible and ready to change your outline as your understanding of your topic develops.

Letter Writing

Sometimes the prospect of writing a report or essay can be intimidating. You may find that explaining your topic to someone will help you get started. In that case, write a letter to someone you know—your best friend, a parent or grandparent, a sibling—in which you discuss your subject. Explain it in terms that your reader can understand. Use the unsent letter to rehearse your topic; make it a kind of rough draft that you can then revise and develop to suit your actual audience.

Discovery Drafting

Some writers do best by jumping in and writing. Here are the steps to take if you're ready to write a preliminary DRAFT:

  1. Write your draft quickly, in one sitting if possible.
  2. Assume that you are writing to discover what you want to say and how you need to say it—and that you will make substantial revisions in a later part of the process.
  3. Don't worry about grammatical or factual correctness—if you can't think of a word, leave a blank to fill in later. If you're unsure of a date or spelling, put a question mark in parentheses as a reminder to check it later. Just write.

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At some point, you need to write out a draft. By the time you begin drafting, you've probably written quite a bit—in the form of notes, lists, outlines, and other kinds of informal writing. This chapter offers some hints on how to write a draft—and reminds you that as you draft, you may well need to get more information, rethink some aspect of your work, or follow new ideas that occur to you as you write.

Establishing a Schedule with Deadlines

Don't wait until the last minute to write. Computers crash, printers jam. Life intervenes in unpredictable ways. You increase your chances of success immensely by setting and meeting deadlines: Research done by ____; rough draft done by ____; revisions done by ____; final draft edited, proofread, and submitted by ____. How much time you need varies with each writing task—but trying to compress everything into twenty-four or forty-eight hours before the deadline is asking for trouble.

Getting Comfortable

When are you at your best? When do you have your best ideas? For major writing projects, consider establishing a schedule that lets you write when you stand the best chance of doing good work. Schedule breaks for exercise and snacks. Find a good place to write, a place where you've got a good surface on which to spread out your materials, good lighting, a comfortable chair, and the right tools (pen, paper, computer) for the job. Often, however, we must make do: you may have to do your drafting in a busy computer lab or classroom. The trick is to make yourself as comfortable as you can manage. Sort out what you need from what you prefer.

Starting to Write

All of the above advice notwithstanding, don't worry so much about the trappings of your writing situation that you don't get around to writing. Write. Start by FREEWRITING, start with a first sentence, start with awful writing that you know you'll discard later—but write. That's what gets you warmed up and going.

Write quickly in spurts. Write quickly with the goal of writing a complete draft, or a complete section of a longer draft, in one sitting. If you need to stop in the middle, jot down some notes about where you were headed when you stopped so that you can easily pick up your train of thought when you begin again.

Break down your writing task into small segments. Big projects can be intimidating. But you can always write one section or, if need be, one paragraph or even a single sentence—and then another and another. It's a little like dieting—if I think I need to lose twenty pounds, I get discouraged and head for the doughnuts; but if I decide that I'll lose one pound and I lose it, well, I'll lose another—that I can do.

Expect surprises. Writing is a form of thinking; the words you write lead you down certain roads and away from others. You may end up somewhere you didn't anticipate. Sometimes that can be a good thing—but sometimes you can write yourself into a dead end or out onto a tangent. Just know that this is natural, part of every writer's experience, and it's okay to double back or follow a new path that opens up before you.

Remember that your writing is not carved in stone. A first sentence, first page, or first draft represents your attempt to organize into words your thoughts, ideas, feelings, research findings, and more. It's likely that some of that first try will not achieve your goals. That's okay—having writing on paper or on screen that you can change, add to, and cut means you're part of the way there.

Dealing with Writer's Block

You may sit down to write but find that you can't—nothing occurs to you; your mind is blank. Don't panic; here are some ways to get started writing again:

  • Think of the assignment as a problem to be solved. Try to capture that problem in a single sentence: "How do I . . . ?" "What is the best way to . . . ?" "What am I trying to do in . . . ?" Think of a solution to the problem, and then stop thinking about it. If you can't solve it, do something else; give yourself time. Many of us find the solution in the shower, after a good night's sleep.
  • Stop trying: take a walk, take a shower, do something else. Come back in a half hour, refreshed.
  • Open a window, or get a fresh piece of paper and FREEWRITE, or try LOOPING or LISTING. What are you trying to say? Just let whatever comes come—you may write yourself out of your box.
  • Try a different medium: try CLUSTERING, or draw a chart of what you want to say; draw a picture; doodle.
  • Do some research on your topic to see what others have said about it.
  • Talk to someone about what you are trying to do; if there's a writing center at your school, talk to a tutor: GET RESPONSE. If there's no one to talk to, talk to yourself. It's the act of talking—using your mouth instead of your hands—that can free you up.

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Assessing Your Own Writing

In school and out, our work is continually assessed by others. Teachers determine whether our writing is strong or weak; supervisors decide whether we merit raises or promotions; even friends and relatives size up the things we do in various ways. As writers, we need to assess our work— to step back and see it with a critical eye. By developing standards of our own and being conscious of the standards others use, we can assess— and shape—our writing, making sure it does what we want it to do. This chapter will help you assess your own written work.

Assessing the Writing You Do for Yourself

We sometimes write not for an audience but for ourselves—to generate ideas, reflect, make sense of things. The best advice on assessing it is don't. If you're writing to explore your thoughts, understand a subject, record the events of your day or just for the pleasure of putting words on paper, shut off your internal evaluator. Let the words flow without worrying about them. Let yourself wander without censoring yourself or fretting that what you're writing is incorrect or incomplete or incoherent. That's okay.

One measure of the success of personal writing is its length. FREEWRITING, journal writing, LISTING, CUBING, and other types of informal writing are like warm-up exercises to limber you up and get you thinking. If you don't give those writing exercises enough time and space, they may not do what you want them to. I've found, for example, that my students' best insights most often appear at the end of their journal entries. Had they stopped before that point, they never would have had those good ideas.

A way to study the ideas in your personal writing is to highlight useful patterns in different colors. For example, academic journals usually involve some questioning and speculating, as well as summarizing and paraphrasing. Try color coding each of these, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase: yellow for summaries or paraphrases, green for questions, blue for speculations. Do any colors dominate? If, for example, your text is mostly yellow, you may be restating the course content too much and perhaps need to ask more of your own questions. If you're generating ideas for an essay, you might assign colors to ideas or themes to see which ones are most promising.

Assessing the Writing You Do for Others

What we write for others must stand on its own because we usually aren't present when it is read—we rarely get to explain to readers why we did what we did and what it means. So we need to make our writing as good as we can before we submit, post, display, or publish it. It's a good idea to assess your writing in two stages, first considering how well it meets the needs of your particular rhetorical situation, then studying the text itself to check its focus, argument, and organization. Sometimes some simple questions can get you started:

What works?
What still needs work?
Where do you need to say more (or less)?
Considering the Rhetorical Situation

PURPOSE What is your purpose for writing? If you have multiple purposes, list them, and then note which ones are the most important. How does your draft achieve your purpose( s)? If you're writing for an assignment, what are the requirements of the assignment and does your draft meet those requirements?
AUDIENCE To whom are you writing? What do those readers need and expect, as far as you can tell? Does your draft answer their needs? Do you define any terms and explain any concepts they won't know?
GENRE What is the genre, and what are the key features of that genre? Does your draft include each of those features?
STANCE Is it clear where you stand on your topic? Does your writing project the personality, voice, and tone that you want? Look at the words you use—how do they represent you as a person?
MEDIA / DESIGN At this point, your text is not likely to be designed, but think about the medium (print? spoken? electronic?) and whether your writing suits it. What design requirements can you anticipate? Lists? Headings? Charts? Visuals?

Examining the Text Itself

Look carefully at your text to see how well it says what you want it to say. Start with the broadest aspect, its focus, and then examine its reasons and evidence, organization, and clarity, in that order. If your writing lacks focus, the revising you'll do to sharpen the focus is likely to change everything else; if it needs more reasons and evidence, the organization may well change.

Consider your focus. Your writing should have a clear point, and every part of the writing should support that point. Here are some questions that can help you see if your draft is adequately focused:

  • What is your THESIS? Even if it is not stated overtly, you should be able to summarize it for yourself in a single sentence.
  • Is your thesis narrow or broad enough to suit the needs and expectations of your audience?
  • How does the beginning focus attention on your main point?
  • Does each paragraph support or develop that point? Do any paragraphs or sentences stray from your focus?
  • Does the ending leave readers thinking about your main point? Is there another way of concluding the essay that would sharpen your focus?
Consider the support you provide for your argument. Your writing needs to give readers enough information to understand your points, follow your argument, and see the logic of your thinking. How much information is enough will vary according to your audience. If they already know a lot about your subject or are likely to agree with your point of view, you may need to give less detail. If, however, they are unfamiliar with your topic or are skeptical about your views, you will probably need to provide much more information to help them understand your position.

  • What REASONS and EVIDENCE do you give to support your thesis? Where might more information be helpful or useful?
  • What key terms and concepts do you DEFINE? Are there any other terms your readers might need to have explained?
  • Where might you want more DESCRIPTION or other detail?
  • Do you include any COMPARISONS? Especially if your readers will not be familiar with your topic, it can help to compare it with something more familiar.
  • If you include NARRATIVE, how is it relevant to your point?
  • See Part IV for other useful STRATEGIES.
Consider the organization. As a writer, you need to lead readers through your text, carefully structuring your material so that they will be able to follow your argument.

  • Analyze the structure by OUTLINING it. An informal outline will do since you mainly need to see the parts, not the details.
  • Does your genre require an abstract, a works cited list, or any other elements?
  • What TRANSITIONS help readers move from idea to idea and paragraph to paragraph?
  • Would headings help orient readers?
Check for clarity. Nothing else matters if readers can't understand what you write. So clarity matters. Following are some questions that can help you see whether your meaning is clear and your text is easy to read:

  • Does your title announce your subject of your text and give some sense of what you have to say? If not, would it strengthen your argument to be more direct?
  • Do you state your THESIS directly? If not, how will readers understand your main point? Try stating your thesis outright, and see if it makes your argument easier to follow.
  • Does your beginning tell readers what they need to understand your text, and does your ending help them make sense of what they've just read?
  • How does each paragraph relate to the ones before and after? Do you make those relationships clear—or do you need to add TRANSITIONS?
  • Do you vary your sentences? If all the sentences are roughly the same length and follow the same subject-verb-object pattern, your text probably lacks any clear emphasis and might even be difficult to read.
  • Are visuals clearly labeled, positioned near the text they relate to, referred to clearly in the text?
  • If you introduce materials from other sources, have you clearly distinguished quoted, paraphrased, or summarized ideas from your own?
  • Have a look at the words you use. Concrete words are generally easier to understand than abstract words. If you use too many abstract words, consider changing some of them to concrete terms. Do you DEFINE all the words that your readers may not know?
  • Does your punctuation make your writing more or less clear? Incorrect punctuation can make writing difficult to follow or, worse, change the intended meaning. As a best-selling punctuation manual reminds us, there's a considerable difference between "eats, shoots, and leaves" and "eats shoots and leaves."

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Getting Response And Revising

If we want to learn to play a song on the guitar, we play it over and over again until we get it right. If we play basketball or baseball, we likely spend hours shooting foul shots or practicing a swing. Writing works the same way. Making our meaning clear can be tricky, and you should plan on revising and if need be rewriting in order to get it right. When we speak with someone face-to-face or on the phone or write an instant message to a friend, we can get immediate response and adjust or restate our message if we've been misunderstood. When we write, that immediate response is missing, so we need to seek out response from readers to help us revise. This chapter includes a list of things for those readers to consider, along with various strategies for then revising and rewriting.

Getting Response

Sometimes the most helpful eyes belong to others: readers you trust, including trained writing-center tutors. They can often point out problems (and strengths) that you simply cannot see in your own work. Ask your readers to consider the specific elements in the list below, but don't restrict them to those elements. Caution: If a reader says nothing about any of these elements, don't be too quick to assume that you needn't think about them yourself.

  • What did you think when you first saw the title? Is it interesting? informative? appropriate? Will it attract other readers' attention?
  • Does the beginning grab readers' attention? If so, how does it do so? Does it give enough information about the topic? offer necessary background information? How else might the piece begin?
  • Is there a clear THESIS? What is it?
  • Is there sufficient support for the thesis? Is there anywhere you'd like to have more detail? Is the supporting material sufficiently DOCUMENTED?
  • Does the text have a clear pattern of organization? Does each part relate to the thesis? Does each part follow from the one preceding it? Was the text easy to follow? How might the organization be improved?
  • Is the ending satisfying? What did it leave you thinking? How else might it end?
  • What is the writer's STANCE? Can you tell the writer's attitude toward the subject and audience? What words convey that attitude? Is it consistent throughout?
  • How well does the text address the rest of its RHETORICAL SITUATION? Does it meet the needs and expectations of its AUDIENCE? Where might readers need more information, guidance, or clarification? Does it achieve its PURPOSE? Does every part of the text help achieve the purpose? Could anything be cut? Should anything be added? Does it meet the requirements of its GENRE? Should anything be added, deleted, or changed to meet those requirements?


Once you have studied your draft with a critical eye and hopefully gotten response from other readers, it's time to revise. Major changes may be necessary, and you may need to generate new material or do some rewriting. But assume that your draft is good raw material that you can revise to achieve your purposes. Revision should take place on several levels, from global (whole-text issues) to particular (the details). Work on your draft in that order, starting with the elements that are global in nature and gradually moving to smaller, more particular aspects. This allows you to use your time most efficiently and take care of bigger issues first. In fact, as you deal with the larger aspects of your writing, many of the smaller ones will be taken care of along the way.

Give yourself time to revise. When you have a deadline, set deadlines for yourself that will give you time—preferably several days but as much as your schedule permits—to work on the text before it has to be delivered. Also, get some distance. Often when you're immersed in a project, you can't see the big picture because you're so busy creating it. If you can, get away from your writing for a while and think about something else. When you return to it, you're more likely to see it freshly. If there's not time to put a draft away for several days or more, even letting it sit overnight or for a few hours can help.

As you revise, assume that nothing is sacred. Bring a critical eye to all parts of a draft, not only to those parts pointed out by your reviewers. Content, organization, sentence patterns, individual words—all are subject to improvement. Be aware that a change in one part of the text may require changes in other parts.

Revise to sharpen your focus. Examine your THESIS to make sure it matches your PURPOSE as you now understand it. Read each paragraph to ensure that it contributes to your main point; you may find it helpful to OUTLINE your draft to help you see all the parts. If any parts of your draft do not advance your thesis, you need either to modify the parts of the draft that don't match or to revise your thesis to reflect your draft's focus. Read your beginning and ending carefully; make sure that the first paragraphs introduce your topic and provide any needed contextual information and that the last paragraphs provide a satisfying conclusion.

Revise to strengthen the argument. If readers find some of your claims unconvincing, you need to provide more information or more support. You may need to define terms you've assumed they will understand, offer additional examples, or provide more detail by describing, explaining processes, adding dialogue, or using some other STRATEGIES. Make sure you show as well as tell! You might try freewriting, clustering, or other ways of GENERATING IDEAS AND TEXTS. If you need to provide additional evidence, you might need to do additional research.

Revise to improve the organization. If you've outlined your draft, number each paragraph, and make sure each one follows from the one before. If anything seems out of place, move it, or if necessary, cut it completely. Check to see if you've included appropriate TRANSITIONS or headings to help readers move through the text, and add them as needed. Check to make sure your text meets the requirements of the GENRE you're writing in.

Revise for clarity. Be sure readers will be able to understand what you're saying. Look closely at your title to be sure it gives a sense of what the text is about, and at your THESIS to be sure readers will recognize your main point. If you don't state a thesis directly, consider whether you should. Be sure you provide any necessary background information and DEFINE any key terms. Make sure you've integrated any QUOTATIONS, PARAPHRASES, or SUMMARIES into your text clearly. Be sure all paragraphs are focused around one main point and that the sentences in each paragraph contribute to that point. Finally, consider whether there are any data that would be more clearly presented in a chart, table, or graph.

One way to test whether your text is clear is to switch audiences: say what you're trying to say as if you were talking to an eight-year-old. You probably don't want to write that way, but the act of explaining your ideas to a young audience or readers who know nothing about your topic can help you discover any points that may be unclear.

Read and reread and reread. Take some advice from Donald Murray:

Nonwriters confront a writing problem and look away from the text to rules and principles and textbooks and handbooks and models. Writers look at the text, knowing that the text itself will reveal what needs to be done and what should not yet be done or may never be done. The writer reads and rereads and rereads, standing far back and reading quickly from a distance, moving in close and reading slowly line by line, reading again and again, knowing that the answers to all writing problems lie within the evolving text.

—Donald Murray, A Writer Teaches Writing


Some writers find it useful to try rewriting a draft in various ways or from various perspectives just to explore possibilities. Try it! If you find that your original plan works best for your purpose, fine. But you may find that another way will work better. Especially if you're not completely satisfied with your draft, consider the following ways of rewriting. Experiment with your rhetorical situation:

  • Rewrite your draft from different points of view, through the eyes of different people perhaps or through the eyes of an animal or even from the perspective of an object. See how the text changes (in the information it presents, its perspective, its voice).
  • Rewrite for a different AUDIENCE. How might an email detailing a recent car accident be written to a friend, the insurance adjuster, a parent?
  • Rewrite in a different STANCE. If the first draft was temperate and judicious, be extreme; if it was polite, be more direct. If the first draft was in standard English, rewrite it in the language your relatives use.
  • Rewrite the draft in a different GENRE or MEDIUM. Rewrite an essay as a letter, story, poem, speech. Which genre and medium work best to reach your intended audience and achieve your purpose?
Ways of rewriting a narrative

  • Rewrite one scene completely in DIALOGUE.
  • Start at the end of the story and work back to the beginning, or start in the middle and fill in the beginning as you work toward the end.
Ways of rewriting a textual analysis

  • COMPARE the text you're analyzing with another text (which may be in a completely different genre—film, TV, song lyrics, computer games, poetry, fiction—whatever).
  • Write a parody of the text you're analyzing. Be as silly and as funny as you can while maintaining the structure of the original text. Alternatively, write a parody of your analysis, using evidence from the text to support an outrageous analysis.
Ways of rewriting a report

  • Rewrite for a different AUDIENCE. For example, explain a concept to your grandparents; describe the subject of a profile to a visitor from another planet.
  • Be silly. Rewrite the draft as if for The Daily Show or The Onion, or rewrite it as if it were written by Bart Simpson.
Ways of rewriting an argument

  • Rewrite taking another POSITION. Argue as forcefully for that position as you did for your actual one, acknowledging and refuting that position. Alternatively, write a rebuttal to your first draft from the perspective of someone with different beliefs.
  • Rewrite your draft as a story—make it real in the lives of specific individuals. (For example, if you were writing about abortion rights, you could write a story about a young pregnant woman trying to decide what she believes and what to do.) Or rewrite the argument as a fable or parable.
  • Rewrite the draft as a letter responding to a hostile reader, trying at least to make him or her understand what you have to say.
  • Rewrite the draft as an angry letter to someone, or as a table-thumping dinner-with-the-relatives discussion. Write from the most extreme position possible.
  • Write an ANALYSIS of your argument in which you identify, as carefully and as neutrally as you can, the various positions people hold on the issue.
Once you've rewritten a draft in any of these ways, see whether there's anything you can use. Read each draft, considering how it might help you achieve your purpose, reach your audience, convey your stance. Revise your actual draft to incorporate anything you think will make your text more effective.

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Editing and Proofreading

Your ability to produce clear, error-free writing shows something about your ability as a writer and also leads readers to make assumptions about your intellect, work habits, even your character. Readers of job application letters and résumés, for example, may reject applications if they contain a single error if only because that's an easy way to narrow the field of potential candidates. In addition, they may well assume that applicants who present themselves sloppily in an application will do sloppy work on the job. This is all to say that you should edit and proofread your work carefully.


Editing is the stage when you work on the details of your paragraphs, sentences, words, and punctuation to make your writing as clear, precise, correct—and effective—as possible. Your goal is not to achieve "perfection" (whatever that may be) so much as to make your writing as effective as possible for your particular purpose and audience. Check a good writing handbook for detailed advice, but the following guidelines can help you check your drafts systematically for some common errors with paragraphs, sentences, and words.

Editing paragraphs

  • Does each paragraph focus on one point? Does it have a TOPIC SENTENCE that announces that point, and if so, where is it located? If it's not the first sentence, should it be? If there's no clear topic sentence, should there be one?
  • Does every sentence in the paragraph relate to the main point of that paragraph? If any sentences do not, consider whether they should be deleted, moved, or revised.
  • Is there enough detail to develop the main point of the paragraph? How is the point developed—as a narrative? a definition? some other STRATEGY?
  • Where have you placed the most important information—at the beginning? the end? in the middle? The most emphatic spot is at the end, so in general that's where to put information you want readers to remember. The second most emphatic spot is at the beginning.
  • Are any paragraphs especially long or short? Consider breaking long paragraphs if there's a logical place to do so—maybe an extended example should be in its own paragraph, for instance. If you have paragraphs of only a sentence or two, see if you can add to them or combine them with another paragraph.
  • Check the way your paragraphs fit together. Does each one follow smoothly from the one before? Do you need to add any TRANSITIONS or other links?
  • Does the beginning paragraph catch readers' attention? In what other ways might you begin your text?
  • Does the final paragraph provide a satisfactory ending? How else might you conclude your text?
Editing sentences

  • Is each sentence complete? Does it have someone or something (the subject) performing some sort of action or expressing a state of being (the verb)? Does each sentence begin with a capital letter and end with a period, question mark, or exclamation point?
  • Check your use of the active voice ("The choir sang 'Amazing Grace' ") and the passive (" 'Amazing Grace' was sung by the choir") Some kinds of writing call for the passive voice, and sometimes it is more appropriate than the active voice, but in general, you'll do well to edit out any use of the passive voice that's not required.
  • Check for parallelism. Items in a list or series should be parallel in form—all nouns (lions, tigers, bears), all verbs (hopped, skipped, jumped), all clauses (he came, he saw, he conquered), and so on.
  • Do many of your sentences begin with it or there? Sometimes these words help introduce a topic, but too often they make your text vague or even conceal needed information. Why write "There are reasons we voted for him." when you can say "We had reasons to vote for him."?
  • Are your sentences varied? If they all start with a subject or are all the same length, your writing might be dull and maybe even hard to read. Try varying your sentence openings by adding transitions, introductory phrases, or dependent clauses. Vary sentence lengths by adding detail to some or combining some sentences.
Editing words

  • Are you sure of the meaning of every word? Use a dictionary; be sure to look up words whose meanings you're not sure about. And remember your audience—do you use any terms they'll need to have DEFINED?
  • Is any of your language too general or vague? Why write that you competed in a race, for example, if you could say you ran the 4x200 relay?
  • What about the tone? If your stance is serious (or humorous, or critical, or something else), make sure that your words all convey that tone.
  • Do all pronouns have clear antecedents? If you write "he" or "they" or "it" or "these," will readers know whom or what the words refer to?
  • Have you used any clichés—expressions that are used so frequently that they are no longer fresh? "Live and let live," avoiding something "like the plague," and similar expressions are so predictable that your writing will almost always be better off without them.
  • Be careful with the language you use to refer to others. Make sure that your words do not stereotype any individual or group. Mention age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and so on, only if they are relevant to your subject. When referring to an ethnic group, make every effort to use the terms members of the group prefer.
  • Edit out language that might be considered sexist. Do you say "he" when you mean "he and she"? Have you used words like manpower or policeman to refer to people who may be female? If so, substitute less gendered words such as personnel or police officer. Do your words reflect any gender stereotypes—for example, that all engineers are male, or all schoolteachers female? If you mention someone's gender, is it even necessary? If not, eliminate the unneeded words.
  • How many of your verbs are forms of be, do, and have? If you rely too much on these words, try replacing them with more specific verbs. Why write "She did a story" when you could say "She wrote a story"?
  • Do you ever confuse its and it's? Use it's when you mean it is or it has. Use its when you mean belonging to it.


Proofreading is the final stage of the writing process, the point where you clean up your work to present it to your readers. Proofreading is like checking your appearance in a mirror before going into a job interview: being neat and well groomed looms large in creating a good first impression, and the same principle applies to writing. Misspelled words, missing pages, mixed-up fonts, and other lapses send a negative message about your work—and about you. Most readers excuse an occasional error, but by and large readers are an intolerant bunch: too many errors will lead them to declare your writing—and maybe your thinking—flawed. There goes your credibility. So proofread your final draft with care to ensure that your message is taken as seriously as you want it to be.

Up to this point, you've been told not to read individual words on the page and instead to read for meaning. Proofreading demands the opposite: you must slow down your reading so that you can see every word, every punctuation mark.

  • Use your computer's grammar checker and spelling checker, but only as a first step, and know that they're not very reliable. Computer programs don't read writing; instead, they rely on formulas and banks of words, so what they flag (or don't flag) as mistakes may or may not be accurate. If you were to write, "Sea you soon," sea would not be flagged as misspelled because it is a word and it's spelled correctly even though it's the wrong word in that sentence.
  • To keep your eyes from jumping ahead, place a ruler or piece of paper under each line as you read it. Use your finger or pen or pencil as a pointer.
  • Some writers find it helpful to read the text one sentence at a time, beginning with the last sentence and working backward.
  • Read your text out loud to yourself—or better, to others, who may hear problems you can't see. Alternatively, have someone else read your text aloud to you while you follow along on the page or screen.
  • Ask someone else to read your text. The more important the writing is, the more important this step.
  • If you find a mistake after you've printed out your text and are unable to print out a corrected version, make the change as neatly as possible in pencil or pen.

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Compiling a Portfolio

Artists maintain portfolios of their work to show gallery owners, collectors, and other potential buyers. Money managers work with investment portfolios of stocks, bonds, and various mutual funds. And often as part of a writing class, student writers compile portfolios of their work. As with a portfolio of paintings or drawings, a portfolio of writing includes a writer's best work and, sometimes, preliminary and revised drafts of that work, along with a statement by the writer articulating why he or she considers it good. The why is as important as the work, for it provides you with an occasion for assessing your overall strengths and weaknesses as a writer. This chapter offers guidelines to help you compile both a writing portfolio and a literacy portfolio, a project that writing students are sometimes asked to complete as part of a literacy narrative.

Considering the Rhetorical Situation

As with the writing you put in a portfolio, the portfolio itself is generally intended for a particular audience but could serve a number of different purposes. It's a good idea, then, to consider these and the other elements of your rhetorical situation when you begin to compile a portfolio.

PURPOSE Why are you creating this portfolio? To create a record of your writing? As the basis for a grade in a course? To organize your research? To explore your literacy? For something else?
AUDIENCE Who will read your portfolio? What will your readers expect it to contain? How can you help them understand the context or occasion for each piece of writing you include?
GENRE What genres of writing should the portfolio contain? Do you want to demonstrate your ability to write a particular type of writing or in a variety of genres? Will your statement about the portfolio be in the form of a letter or an essay?
STANCE How do you want to portray yourself in this portfolio? What items should you include to create this impression? What stance do you want to take in your written assessment of its contents? Thoughtful? Enthusiastic? Something else?
MEDIA / DESIGN Will your portfolio be in print? Or will it be electronic? Whichever medium you choose, how can you help readers navigate its contents? What design elements will be most appropriate to your purpose and medium?

A Writing Portfolio

What to Include in a Writing Portfolio

A portfolio developed for a writing course typically contains examples of your best work in that course, including any notes, outlines, preliminary drafts, and so on, along with your own assessment of your performance in that course. You might include any of the following items:

  • freewriting, outlines, and other work you did to generate ideas
  • drafts, rough and revised
  • in-class writing assignments
  • source material—copies of articles, Web sites, observation notes, interview transcripts, and other evidence of your research
  • tests and quizzes
  • responses to your drafts
  • conference notes, error logs, lecture notes, other course materials
  • reflections on your work
What you have included will vary depending on what your instructor asks for. You may be asked to include three of your best papers or everything you've written. You may also be asked to choose certain items for evaluation or perhaps to show work in several different genres. In any case, you will need to choose, and to do that you will need to have criteria for making your choices. Don't base your decision solely on grades (unless grades are one criterion); your portfolio should reflect your assessment of your work, not your instructor's. What do you think is your best work? your most interesting work? your most ambitious work? Whatever criteria you use, you are the judge.

Organizing a Portfolio

Your instructor may provide explicit guidelines for organizing your portfolio. If not, here are some guidelines. If you set up a way to organize your writing at the start of the course, you'll be able to keep track of it throughout the course, making your job at term's end much easier. Remember that your portfolio presents you as a writer, presumably at your best. It should be neat, well organized, and easy to navigate.

Paper portfolios. Choose something in which to gather your work. You might use a two-pocket folder, a three-ring binder, or a file folder, or you may need a box, basket, or some other container to accommodate bulky or odd-shaped items. You might also put your drafts on a computer disk, with each file clearly named.

Label everything. Label each piece at the top of the first page, specifying the assignment, the draft, and the date: "Proposal, Draft 1, 2/12/05"; "Text Analysis, Final Draft, 10/10/05"; "Portfolio Self-Assessment, Final Draft, 12/11/05"—and so on. Write this information neatly on the page, or put it on a Post-it note. For each assignment, arrange your materials chronologically, with your earliest material (freewriting, for example) on the bottom, and each successive item (source materials, say, then your outline, then your first draft, and so on) on top of the last, ending with your final draft on top. That way readers can see how your writing progressed from earliest work to final draft.

Online portfolios. You might also assemble a Web portfolio that includes a home page with links to your portfolio's contents. Doing this requires that you create Web pages and then make them available on the Web. Some Web-based courseware programs allow you to create a portfolio from the texts you've submitted to the program; others require you to use a Web-authoring program. Microsoft FrontPage, Netscape Composer, or Macromedia Dreamweaver may be available through your school. Road Runner, Tripod, and Yahoo! GeoCities also provide tools for constructing Web pages. You can also use Microsoft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint. The programs available for your use and the requirements for posting your portfolio on the Web vary from school to school and instructor to instructor; ask your instructor or your school's computer help desk for help (and see the chapter on electronic text for general guidance).

A sample Web portfolio

In general, you should first create a basic Web home page using one of those programs. Your home page should include your name, the portfolio's title, the relevant course information, the date, a menu of the contents, and your self-assessment. Above is an example, created with PowerPoint, of the kind of home page you might create early in the course; you can add links as you write new drafts.

Your home page might include a menu of links to each portfolio item, as this one does. Alternatively, you might include links to each piece of writing as you discuss it in your self-assessment—or you could do both. However you guide readers to your writing, be sure to provide a clearly descriptive title for each item. On each page of a final draft, you might create links to preliminary drafts and to work you did generating ideas.

The best way to plan such a portfolio is to make a map of its contents, like the one shown here done for a first-year writing course. Each box represents a different page; each line represents a link from one page to another.

A plan for a Web portfolio

Reflecting on Your Writing Portfolio

The most important part of your portfolio is your written statement reflecting on your work. This is an occasion to step back from the work at hand and examine it with a critical eye. It is also an opportunity to assess your work, and to think about what you're most proud of, what you most enjoyed doing, what you want to improve. It's your chance to think about and say what you've learned. Some instructors may ask you to write out your assessment in essay form; others will want you to put it in letter form, which usually allows for a more relaxed and personal tone. Whatever form it takes, your statement should cover the following ground:

  • An evaluation of each piece of writing in the portfolio. Consider both strengths and weaknesses, and give examples from your writing to support what you say. What would you change if you had more time? Which is your favorite piece, and why? Which is your least favorite?
  • An assessment of your overall writing performance. What do you do well? What still needs improvement?
  • A discussion of how the writing you did in this course has affected your development as a writer. How does the writing in your portfolio compare with writing you did in the past? What do you know now that you didn't know before? What can you do that you couldn't do before?
  • A description of your writing habits and process. What do you usually do? How well does it work? What techniques seem to help you most, and why? Which seem less helpful? Cite passages from your drafts that support your conclusions.
  • An analysis of your performance in the course. How did you spend your time? Did you collaborate with others? Did you have any conferences with your instructor? Did you visit the writing center? Consider how these or any other activities contributed to your success.


Here is a letter written by Nathaniel Cooney as part of his portfolio for his first-year writing class at Wright State University.

2 June 2004

Dear Reader,

It is my hope that in reading this letter, you will gain an understanding of the projects contained in this portfolio. I enclose three works that I have submitted for an introductory writing class at Wright State University, English 102, Writing in Academic Discourse: an informative report, an argument paper, and a genre project based largely on the content of the argument paper. I selected the topics of these works for two reasons: First, they address issues that I believe to be relevant in terms of both the intended audience (peers and instructors of the course) and the times when they were published. Second, they speak to issues that are important to me personally. Below I present general descriptions of the works, along with my review of their strengths and weaknesses.

My purpose in writing the informative report "Higher Standards in Education Are Taking Their Toll on Students" was to present a subject in a factual manner and to support it with well-documented research. My intent was not to argue a point. However, because I chose a narrowly focused topic and chose information to support a thesis, the report tends to favor one side of the issue over the other. Because as a student I have a personal stake in the changing standards in the formal education system, I chose to research recent changes in higher education and their effects on students. Specifically, I examine students' struggles to reach a standard that seems to be moving farther and farther beyond their grasp.

I believe that this paper could be improved in two areas. The first is a bias that I think exists because I am a student presenting information from the point of view of a student. It is my hope, however, that my inclusion of unbiased sources lessens this problem somewhat and, furthermore, that it presents the reader with a fair and accurate collection of facts and examples that supports the thesis. My second area of concern is the overall balance in the paper between outside sources supporting my own thoughts and outside sources supporting opposing points of view. Rereading the paper, I notice many places where I may have worked too hard to include sources to support my ideas. I do not necessarily see that as a bad thing, however, because, as I stated earlier, the outside sources work to counterbalance my own bias and provide the reader with additional information. I do think, though, that the paper might be improved if I were to reach a better balance between the amount of space dedicated to the expression of my ideas and the amount of space dedicated to the presentation of source materials.

The second paper, "Protecting Animals That Serve," is an argument intended not only to take a clear position on an issue but also to argue for that position and convince the reader that it is a valid one. That issue is the need for legislation guaranteeing that certain rights of service animals be protected. I am blind and use a guide dog. Thus, this issue is especially important to me. During the few months that I have had him, my guide dog has already encountered a number of situations where intentional or negligent treatment by others has put him in danger. At the time I was writing the paper, a bill was being written in the Ohio House of Representatives that, if passed, would protect service animals and establish consequences for those who violated the law. The purpose of the paper, therefore, was to present the reader with information about service animals, establish the need for the legislation in Ohio and nationwide, and argue for passage of such legislation.

I think that the best parts of my argument are the introduction and the conclusion. In particular, I think that the conclusion does a good job of not only bringing together the various points, but also conveying the significance of the issue for me and for others. In contrast, I think that the area most in need of further attention is the body of the paper. While I think the content is strong, I believe the overall organization could be improved. The connections between ideas are unclear in places, particularly in the section that acknowledges opposing viewpoints. This may be due in part to the fact that I had difficulty understanding the reasoning behind the opposing argument.

The argument paper served as a starting point for the genre project, for which the assignment was to revise one paper written for this class in a different genre. My genre project consists of a poster and a brochure. As it was for the argument paper, my primary goal was to convince my audience of the importance of a particular issue and viewpoint—specifically, to convince my audience to support House Bill 369, the bill being introduced in the Ohio Legislature that would create laws to protect the rights of service animals in the state.

Perhaps both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the genre project is my use of graphics. Because of my blindness, I was limited in my use of some graphics. Nevertheless, the pictures were carefully selected to capture the attention of readers, and, in part, to appeal to their emotions as they viewed and reflected on the material.

I noticed two other weaknesses in this project. First, I think that in my effort to include the most relevant information in the brochure, I may have included too many details. Because space is limited, brochures generally include only short, simple facts. Although I tried to keep the facts short and simple, I also tried to use the space that I had to provide as much supporting information as I could. This may have resulted in too much information, given the genre. Second, I dedicated one portion of the poster to a poem I wrote. While the thoughts it conveys are extremely important to me, I was somewhat unsatisfied with its style. I tried to avoid a simple rhyme scheme, but the words kept making their way back to that format. I kept the poem as it was on the advice of others, but I still believe that it could be better.

Despite its weakness, the poem also adds strength to the project in its last stanzas. There, I ask readers to take a side step for a moment, to consider what their lives would be like if they were directly affected by the issue, and to reflect on the issue from that perspective. I hope that doing so personalized the issue for readers and thus strengthened my argument.

I put a great deal of time, effort, and personal reflection into each project. While I am hesitant to say that they are finished and while I am dissatisfied with some of the finer points, I am satisfied with the overall outcome of this collection of works. Viewing it as a collection, I am also reminded that writing is an evolving process and that even if these works never become exactly what I envisioned them to be, they stand as reflections of my thoughts at a particular time in my life. In that respect, they need not be anything but what they already are, because what they are is a product of who I was when I wrote them. I hope that you find the papers interesting and informative and that as you read them, you, too, may realize their significance.


Nathaniel J. Cooney

Enclosures (3)
Cooney describes each of the works he includes and considers their strengths and weaknesses, citing examples from his texts to support his assessment.


As a writing student, you may be asked to think back to the time when you first learned to read and write or to remember significant books or other texts you've read and perhaps to put together a portfolio that chronicles your development as a reader and writer. You may also be asked to put together a literacy portfolio as part of a written narrative assignment.

What you include in such a portfolio will vary depending on what you've kept over the years and what your family has kept. You may have all of your favorite books, stories you dictated to a preschool teacher, notebooks in which you practiced cursive writing. Or you may have almost nothing. What you have or don't have is unimportant in the end: what's important is that you gather what you can and arrange it in a way that shows how you think about your development and growth as a literate person. What has been your experience with reading and writing? What's your earliest memory of learning to write? If you love to read, what led you to love it? Who was most responsible for shaping your writing ability? Those are some of the questions you'll ask if you write a LITERACY NARRATIVE. You might also compile a literacy portfolio as a good way to generate ideas and text for that assignment.

What to Include in a Literacy Portfolio

  • school papers
  • drawings and doodles from preschool
  • favorite books
  • photographs you've taken
  • drawings
  • poems
  • letters
  • journals and diaries
  • lists
  • reading records or logs
  • marriage vows
  • legal documents
  • speeches you've given
  • awards you've received

Organizing a Literacy Portfolio

You may wish to organize your material chronologically, but there are other methods of organization to consider as well. For example, you might group items according to where they were written (at home, at school, at work), by genre (stories, poems, essays, letters, notes), or even by purpose (pleasure, school, work, church, and so on). Arrange your portfolio in the way that best conveys who you are as a literate person. Label each item you include, perhaps with a Post-it note, to identify what it is, when it was written or read, and why you've included it in your portfolio.

Reflecting on Your Literacy Portfolio

  • Why did you choose each item?
  • Is anything missing? Are there any other important materials that should be here?
  • Why is the portfolio arranged as it is?
  • What does the portfolio show about your development as a reader and writer?
  • What patterns do you see? Are there any common themes you've read or written about? Any techniques you rely on? Any notable changes over time?
  • What are the most significant items—and why?

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