7.1 The Writing Process


This section of Ch. 7 will cover the following topics:

  • using a writing process
  • misconceptions about how to write
  • the importance of planning

Effective writing is simply good ideas expressed well and arranged clearly. But that is more difficult than it sounds. Writing is not something one just sits down and does. You can write a diary like that or a text or a shopping list, but anything you are going to submit to a reader for evaluation–a job application, an essay, a report–should be planned and polished.

How does effective writing happen?  Great writers use a writing process. Students who want to improve their writing learn that a writing process will help them achieve that goal.  It also reduces stress and improves grades.

The Writing Process

The writing process outlined in this chapter is not difficult, but it takes several sessions. Here are the five steps of the writing process:

  1. Prewrite:  generate and begin developing ideas
  2. Outline: identify the document’s purpose and determine the thesis, the basic content, and the organizational structure
  3. Draft: develop the points identified in the outline, add detail, examples, and commentary, then write an engaging introduction and a useful conclusion; after this step, the writer has a first draft
  4. Revise: review and reshape the draft; this involves moderate to major changes: adding or deleting sentences or even paragraphs, expanding an important idea, replacing a vague word with a more precise one, reorganizing points to improve the document’s quality and clarity
  5. Edit: make final changes to ensure adherence to standard writing conventions–fix errors in grammar and spelling–then apply formatting guidelines to ensure correctness

Once these five steps have been completed, a careful writer will seek the advice of knowledgeable others before considering the project complete. In college, this advice usually takes the form of peer editing groups and tutors.

Then, a writer takes the feedback and repeats Steps 4 and 5, re-revising and re-editing until she is satisfied. How long this takes depends on how long the writer has. In a timed exam, this step has to be done quickly. For a major paper, the writer should expect to do multiple revisions. (This textbook was revised and edited dozens of times with feedback from 4 editors!)

We will go over each step in detail. For now, notice the steps are similar to those in any creative project, not just writing. You’d follow the same steps to design a house or build a robot or paint a painting: come up with ideas (often vague at first), give them some structure, make a first attempt, figure out what needs improving, then refine and polish until you are satisfied.

Common Misconceptions

Some students have had good experience with a writing process in the past. Some have never even heard of a “writing process.” Others are doubtful that anything can help. A few are hopeful.

Following are some common misconceptions students have about the writing process:

  • “I do not have to waste time on prewriting if I understand the assignment.” Even if the task is straightforward and you feel ready to start writing, taking time to develop ideas before you write a draft gives you an opportunity to consider what you want to say before you jump in. It actually saves time overall.
  • “It is important to complete a formal, numbered outline for every writing assignment.” For some assignments, such as lengthy research papers, a formal outline can be helpful. For other assignments, a scratch outline like the one recommended in this process is sufficient. The important thing is that you have a plan.
  • “My draft will be better if I write it when I am feeling inspired.” By all means, take advantage of moments of inspiration. But understand that “inspired” work is often disorganized, incomplete, and unclear. Also, in college you often have to write when you are not in the mood.
  • “My instructor will tell me everything I need to revise.” It is your job, not your instructor’s, to transform a rough draft into a final, polished piece of writing.
  • “I am a good writer, so I do not need to revise or edit.” Revising and editing are what make good writers into great writers. Shakespeare revised his work. So did Jane Austen and George Orwell. Here is what Ernest Hemingway said when asked about revision:

Interviewer: “How much rewriting do you do?”
Hemingway: “It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.”
Interviewer: “Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?”
Hemingway: “Getting the words right.”

The Paris Review Interview, 1956


Here is an example of one famous writer’s revisions.  This is the first page of Charles Dickens’ hand-written manuscript of his classic novel A Christmas Carol.  If Dickens had to revise and edit, you probably need to do so as well…

A photograph of the first page of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"For examples of edits by other famous authors, check out this article:

Planning Backward

Using a writing process requires multiple sessions of writing time. Do not try to move from Step 1 to Step 5 too fast. Trying to work fast is stressful, and it does not yield great results.

When your instructor gives you a writing assignment, write the due date on your calendar. Then work backward from that date to today, setting aside blocks of time when you will work on the assignment. For an essay, try to schedule a work session for each step in the writing process plus an extra session for drafting. Each session should be an hour or two. Less time won’t let you get any important work done, but too much longer is exhausting, and exhausted writers don’t write well.

Stick to your schedule.  If you find you need additional time, add it in small chunks throughout the process rather than trying to do a lot of work the night before the deadline. If things go smoothly and you end up with extra time, spend it on additional revision and editing.


  • This writing process helps students complete any writing assignment more successfully.
  • The process includes five steps: prewriting, organizing, drafting, revising, and editing.
  • The writer should submit a finished draft, not a rough draft, to peer editors or a tutor for feedback.
  • Allow enough time to complete each step.


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1, 2, 3 Write! by Gay Monteverde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.