Writing as Inquiry

This chapter is about writing with a spirit of inquiry—approaching writing projects with curiosity, keeping your eyes open, tackling issues that don't have easy answers. It's about starting with questions and going from there—and taking risks.

Starting with Questions

The most important thing is to start with questions—with what you don't know rather than with what you do know. Your goal is to learn about your subject and then to learn more. As a writer, you need to find out what's being said about your topic and then see your writing as a way of entering that larger conversation. Following are some questions to get you started.

  • How can it be  DEFINED? What is it, and what does it do?
  • How can it be  DESCRIBED? What details should you include? From what vantage point should you describe your topic?
  • How can it be  EXPLAINED? What does it do? How does it work?
  • What can it be  COMPARED with? Does a comparison help you see your topic in a new light?
  • What may have  CAUSED it? What might be its  EFFECTS?
  • How can it be  CLASSIFIED? Is it a topic or issue that can be placed into categories of similar topics or issues? What categories?
  • How can it be  ANALYZED? What parts can the topic be divided into?
  • How can it be  INTERPRETED? What does it really mean? How does your interpretation differ from others? What evidence supports your interpretation or argues against it?
  • What expectations does it raise? What will happen next? What makes you think so? If this happens, how will it affect those involved?
  • What are the different  POSITIONS on it? What evidence is offered for these positions?
  • What are your own feelings about it? What interests you about the topic? What else do you want to find out?
  • Are there other ways to think about it? How can you apply this subject to another situation? Will what works in another situation also work here?

You can also start with the journalist's  QUESTIONS: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

Keeping a Journal

You can use a journal to record your observations, reactions, whatever you wish. Some writers find journals especially useful places to articulate questions or speculations.

Keeping a Blog

Most  BLOGS have a comments section that allows others to read and respond to what you write. The blogs of others may also be useful sources of opinion on your topic, but keep in mind that they probably aren't authoritative research sources.

Back to Top


Even if you do much of your writing sitting alone at a computer, you probably get help from others at various stages in the writing process—and provide help as well. This chapter offers some guidelines for collaborating successfully with other writers.

Some Ground Rules for Working in a Group

  • Make sure everyone is facing everyone else and is physically part of the group.
  • Thoughtfulness, respect, and tact are key. Respond to the writing of others as you would like others to respond to yours.
  • Each meeting needs an agenda—and careful attention paid to time. Appoint one person as timekeeper.
  • Appoint another person to be group leader or facilitator.
  • Appoint a third member of the group to keep a record of the group's discussion and write a  SUMMARY afterward.

Group Writing Projects

Creating a document with a team presents new challenges. Here are some tips for making group projects work well:

  • Define the task as clearly as possible.
  • Divide the task into parts.
  • Assign each group member certain tasks.
  • Establish a deadline for each task.
  • Try to accommodate everyone's style of working.
  • Work for consensus—not necessarily total agreement.
  • Make sure everyone performs.

Online Collaboration

When sharing writing or collaborating with others online, consider the following suggestions:

  • Remember to choose your words carefully to avoid flaming another group member or inadvertently hurting someone's feelings.
  • Remember that your  AUDIENCE may well extend beyond your group.
  • Decide as a group how best to exchange drafts and comments.

Writing Conferences

Conferences with instructors or writing tutors can be especially helpful. Here are some tips for making the most of conference time:

  • Come prepared. Bring all necessary materials and any questions.
  • Be prompt.
  • Listen carefully, discuss your work seriously, and try not to be defensive.
  • Take notes.
  • Reflect on the conference.

Back to Top

Generating Ideas and Text

This chapter offers activities that can help you come up with ideas. 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, letter-writing, journal-keeping, and discovery drafting offer ways to generate a text.


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.
  2. Write your subject at the top of the page and start writing. If you don't have a subject yet, just start writing. Don't stop until the time is up.
  3. Read over what you've written, and underline interesting passages.
  4. Write more, using an underlined passage as your new topic.


Looping is a more focused version of freewriting; it can help you explore what you know about a subject. 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 one-sentence summary of the most important idea. This will start another loop.
  3. Write again for 5–10 minutes, using your summary sentence as your beginning. Repeat the preceding step.

Keep looping until you are able to decide on a tentative focus.


To keep lists of ideas about a topic, follow these steps:

  1. Write a list of ideas about a topic, leaving space to add ideas later.
  2. Look for patterns among the items on your list.
  3. Finally, arrange the items in a sensible order for your purpose.


Clustering is a way of connecting ideas visually. It's especially useful for developing subtopics. Start by writing your topic in the middle of a sheet of paper and circling it.

Click to enlarge


A cube has six sides. You can examine a topic as you might a cube, looking at it in these six ways:  DESCRIBE it;  COMPARE it to something else; associate it with other things or  CLASSIFY it;  ANALYZE it; consider what it is used for;  ARGUE for or against it.


It's always useful to ask  QUESTIONS about a topic. One way is to start with What? Who? When? Where? How? and Why? You might ask questions as if the topic were a play. For example, What happens? Who are the participants? When does the action take place?


An informal outline is simply a list of your ideas in the order in which you want to write about them. A working outline is still informal but 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:

Thesis statement

  1. First reason
    1. Supporting evidence
      1. Detail of evidence
      2. Detail of evidence
    2. Supporting evidence
  2. Another reason

Letter Writing

Sometimes explaining your topic to someone you know will help you get started. In your letter, discuss your subject in terms that your reader can understand. Use the unsent letter as a kind of rough draft that you can then revise for your actual audience.

Keeping a Journal

Jotting down ideas or the events of your day in a journal can provide a wealth of topics. A journal is also a good place to explore why you think as you do.

Discovery Drafting

Here are the steps to take if you do best by jumping in and writing:

  1. Write your draft quickly, in one sitting if possible.
  2. Assume that you are writing to discover what you want to say.
  3. Don't worry about grammatical or factual correctness—just write.

Back to Top


This chapter offers hints on how to write a draft—and reminds you that as you draft, you may need to get more information, rethink part of your work, or follow some new ideas.

Before you start to write, be sure to establish a schedule with deadlines. Don't wait until the last minute. In addition, try to find a comfortable place to write, a place where you've got a good surface on which to spread out your materials, good lighting, and so on.

Starting to Write

Start by writing something—a first sentence, awful writing that you'll discard later, or  FREEWRITING.

  • Write quickly in spurts.Try to write a complete draft, or a complete section of a longer draft, in one sitting.
  • Break down your writing task into small segments. Write one section or, if need be, one paragraph—and then another and another.
  • Expect surprises. If you end up somewhere you didn't anticipate, it's okay to double back or follow a new path.
  • Expect to write morte than one draft.It's likely that some of your first draft will not achieve your goals. That's okay—as you revise, you can fill in gaps and improve your writing.

Dealing with Writer's Block

You may sit down to write but find that you can't. Here are some ways to get started again:

  • Think of the assignment as a problem to be solved.
  • Stop trying: take a walk, take a shower, do something else.
  • Do some research on your topic to see what others have said about it.
  • Talk to someone about what you are trying to do.

Back to Top

Assessing Your Own Writing

As writers, we need to step back and see our work with a critical eye, making sure our writing 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 for ourselves—to generate ideas, make sense of things. The best advice on assessing such writing is don't. Let the words flow without worrying about them or censoring yourself.

One measure of the success of personal writing is its length. Give your writing exercises enough time and space.

A way to study the ideas in your personal writing is to highlight useful patterns in different colors. For example, journal entries usually involve some questioning and speculating, as well as summarizing and paraphrasing. Try color coding each of these.

Assessing the Writing You Do for Others

What we write for others must stand on its own. To assess such writing, first consider your particular rhetorical situation, then study the text itself. 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


What is your purpose for writing? How does your draft achieve your purpose(s)?


To whom are you writing? Do you define terms and explain concepts your readers won't know?


What is the genre? Does your draft include its key features?


Is it clear where you stand on your topic? Does your writing project the tone that you want?


What design requirements can you anticipate? Lists? Headings? Charts? Visuals?

Examining the Text Itself

Look at your text to see how well it says what you want it to say. Start with its focus, and then examine its reasons and evidence, organization, and clarity, in that order.

Consider your focus

Your writing should have a clear point, and every part of the writing should support that point.

  • What is your  THESIS? Is it narrow or broad enough for your audience?
  • How does the beginning focus attention on your main point?
  • Does each paragraph support or develop that point?
  • Does the ending leave readers thinking about your main point?
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.

  • What  REASONS and  EVIDENCE do you give to support your thesis?
  • What key terms and concepts do you  DEFINE?
  • Where might you include more  DESCRIPTION or  COMPARISONS? If you include  NARRATIVE, is it relevant to your point?
Consider the organization

As a writer, you need to structure your material so that readers will be able to follow your argument.

  • Analyze the structure by  OUTLINING it in an informal outline.
  • Does your genre require a works-cited list or any other elements?
  • What  TRANSITIONS help readers move from idea to idea?
  • Would headings help orient readers?
Check for clarity

Nothing else matters if readers can't understand what you write.

  • Does your title announce the subject and give some sense of what you have to say?
  • Do you state your  THESIS directly?
  • Does your beginning tell readers what they need to understand your text, and does your ending help them make sense of it?
  • Do you use  TRANSITIONS and vary your sentences?
  • Are visuals clearly labeled and referred to in the text?
  • Do you clearly distinguish  SOURCE material from your own ideas?
  • Do you use concrete words and  DEFINE terms that your readers may not know?
  • Does your punctuation make your writing more clear, or less?

Thinking about Your Process

After you finish a writing project, consider the following questions:

  • How would you tell the story of your thinking?
  • At some point, did you have to choose between alternatives?
  • What was the most difficult problem you faced while writing?
  • Whose advice did you take, and what did you ignore? Why?

Back to Top

Getting Response and Revising

Plan on revising and if need be rewriting in order to make your meaning clear. When we speak with someone, we can immediately adjust our message if we've been misunderstood. When we write, we need responses from readers to help us revise. This chapter includes a list of things for readers to consider, along with strategies for revising and rewriting.

Getting Response

Ask your readers to consider the specific elements in the list below, but don't restrict them to those elements.

  • What did you think when you first saw the title?
  • Does the beginning grab readers' attention?
  • Is there a clear  THESIS? What is it?
  • Is there sufficient support and  DOCUMENTATION for the thesis?
  • Does the text have a clear pattern of organization?
  • Is the ending satisfying? How else might it end?
  • What is the writer's  STANCE? What words convey that stance?
  • How well does the text address the rest of its  RHETORICAL SITUATION? Does it meet the needs of its  AUDIENCE? Achieve its  PURPOSE? Meet the requirements of its  GENRE?


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.

Give yourself time to revise

When you have a due date, set deadlines for yourself that will give you time to work on the text before it has to be delivered. Also, try to get away from your writing for a while and think about something else.

As you revise, assume that nothing is sacred—that all parts are subject to improvement. At the same time, don't waste energy struggling with writing that simply doesn't work.

Revise to sharpen your focus

Examine your  THESIS to make sure it matches your  PURPOSE. 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. Read your beginning and ending carefully. Do the first paragraphs introduce your topic? Do the final paragraphs provide a satisfying conclusion?

Revise to strengthen the argument

If readers find some of your claims unconvincing, you may need to define terms, add examples, or provide more detail. You might also need to do additional research.

Revise to improve the organization

Make sure each paragraph follows from the one before. If anything seems out of place, move it or cut it completely. Check to see if you've included appropriate  TRANSITIONS or headings, and that your text meets the requirements of your  GENRE.

Revise for clarity

Be sure readers will be able to understand what you're saying. Look closely at your title and your  THESIS, and  DEFINE any key terms. Make sure you've integrated any  QUOTATIONS,  PARAPHRASES, or  SUMMARIES into your text clearly and that all paragraphs are focused around one main point. Finally, consider whether you should use a chart, table, or graph.

Read and reread—and reread

Take some advice from writing theorist Donald Murray:

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 rewrite a draft from various perspectives. Try it! You may find that another perspective will work better.

  • Rewrite your draft from different points of view, through the eyes of different people perhaps or through the eyes of an animal.
  • Rewrite for a different  AUDIENCE.
  • Rewrite in a different  STANCE. If the first draft was polite, be forceful.
  • Rewrite in a different  GENRE, such as a letter or poem.
Ways of rewriting a narrative
  • Rewrite one scene completely in  DIALOGUE.
  • Start at the end of the story, or start in the middle.
Ways of rewriting a textual analysis
  •  COMPARE the text you're analyzing with another text.
  • Write a parody of the text you're analyzing.
Ways of rewriting a report
  • Rewrite for a different  AUDIENCE, such as your grandparents.
  • Be silly. Rewrite as if for The Daily Show or The Onion.
Ways of rewriting an argument
  • Rewrite taking another  POSITION.
  • Rewrite your draft as a story.
  • Rewrite the draft as a letter responding to a hostile reader or as an angry letter to someone.
  • Write an  ANALYSIS of your argument in which you identify the various positions people hold on the issue.

Once you've rewritten a draft in any of these ways, incorporate anything you think will make your text more effective, whether it's other  GENRES or a different perspective.

Back to Top

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. Thus, 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. The following guidelines can help you check your drafts systematically for some common errors.

Editing paragraphs

  • Does each paragraph focus on one point and have a  TOPIC SENTENCE?
  • Does every sentence in the paragraph relate to the main point of that paragraph?
  • Is there enough detail to develop the paragraph's main point?
  • Where is the most important information—at the beginning? the end? in the middle? The most emphatic spot is at the end.
  • Are any paragraphs too long or short?
  • Do your paragraphs fit together? Do you need more  TRANSITIONS?
  • Does the beginning paragraph catch readers' attention?
  • Does the final paragraph provide a satisfactory ending?
Editing sentences
  • Is each sentence complete, with subject, verb, and punctuation?
  • Check your use of the active voice ("The choir sang 'Amazing Grace.'") and the passive ("'Amazing Grace' was sung by the choir.").
  • Are items in a list or series parallel in form?
  • Do too many of your sentences begin with it or there?
  • Are your sentences varied in style and length?
  • Make sure you've used commas correctly.
Editing words
  • Are you sure of the meaning of every word?
  • Is any of your language too general or vague?
  • Make sure that your words all convey the tone of your  STANCE.
  • Do all pronouns have clear antecedents?
  • Do you need to delete any clichés, such as "live and let live"?
  • Make sure that your words do not stereotype any individual or group.
  • Edit out language that might be considered sexist.
  • How many of your verbs are forms of be and do? If you rely too much on these words, try replacing them with more specific verbs.
  • Do you ever confuse its and it's?


Proofreading is the final stage of the writing process, the point where you clean up your work to present it to your readers. Most readers excuse an occasional error, but too many errors will lead them to declare your writing—and maybe your thinking—flawed. 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.

  • Use your computer's grammar checker and spelling checker, but only as a first step, and know that they're not very reliable.
  • Place a ruler or piece of paper under each line as you read. Use your finger or a pencil as a pointer.
  • Some writers like to begin with the last sentence and work backward.
  • Read your text out loud to yourself—or better, to others.
  • Ask someone else to read your text.
  • If you find a mistake after you've printed out your text and can't print out a corrected version, make the change neatly in pencil or pen.

Back to Top

Compiling a Portfolio

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 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 all elements of your
 RHETORICAL SITUATION when you begin to compile a portfolio: purpose, audience, genre, stance, and media / design.

A portfolio developed for a writing course 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, websites, 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 include will vary depending on what your instructor asks for. Detailed information on compiling and organizing portfolios is in text Chapter 28.

Back to Top