Chapter 3: The Writing Process

Stages of the Writing Process

Writing, especially when compiling a larger document,  is not something you sit down, complete in one session, and quickly submit. This is especially true when writing for the workplace where accuracy and clarity are necessary. In fact, writing should be seen as a process that is recursive where the writer moves in and out of various stages of writing and oftentimes revisits some of the stages.


The writing process is complicated according to the Wikibook Rhetoric and Composition, and it often seems loosely defined. According to Webster’s, writing is “ the way you use written words to express your ideas or opinions.” Although we may think of it as little more than arranging letters and words on a page, a few moments’ reflection reveals that it is much more than that. On the one hand, writing is an art–we don’t say Shakespeare’s language is “correct” but rather that it is beautiful. On the other hand, writing is a science–we want the instructions that came with our Blu-Ray player to be accurate, precise, and easy to understand.

Then there is the matter of what makes writing “good writing.” Although we might say that both an instruction manual and a play are “well written,” we appreciate them for different reasons. A play written in the clear, unambiguous language of an instruction manual would not be a hit on Broadway. In other words, writing must be judged according to its context–what is its purpose and audience? Finally, even readers with a great deal in common may not agree about the quality of any particular text, just as people’s opinions differ about which bands are really great.

We really don’t know why people have such preferences and can’t make accurate predictions about what they will like or dislike. Simply put, writing isn’t simple.

This course emphasizes “recursivity” in writing instruction, which means–moving forward through some steps and then circling back to redo previous steps–as the natural way many successful writers work. Good writers tend to switch frequently among the different steps as they work. An insight gained while editing one chapter might convince the writer that an additional chapter is needed; as a result, they might start another drafting phase–or even decide to divide one chapter into two or three, and begin re-organizing and developing new drafts. Likewise, failure to satisfy a publisher–whether it is your boss looking at a pamphlet you’ve written or a book publisher deciding whether to print and sell your book–might lead the author all the way back to the idea-development or organizing stages. In short, while it is very useful to think of writing as a process, the process is not a clear, always-the-same series of steps. Instead, it is a sometimes messy, forward-and-backward process in which you strive for simplicity but try to appeal to your audience, create but also organize, enjoy yourself if possible but also follow some rules, and eventually create a product that works.

If this sounds difficult, it’s not–at least, not if you learn a few lessons this book can teach you–and you practice, practice, practice. The more real writing you do, the more of a real writer you will become. If you are reading this book, then your first goal likely is to do well in a college (or upper-level high school) “composition” or “rhetoric” class. In short, you want to learn how to write a good academic paper. There are a large number of tips and methods this book can show you. They will work best if, like the writing process itself, you go back and forth between reading this book and doing some actual writing: try some of these lessons out by writing; then return to new lessons or review some of the lessons you’ve already read to discover what you next can do with what you’ve written–or with a new writing. Each discipline or major has its own writing style, organizational method, and purpose or goal. Your major or discipline teachers can help you quite a bit as you learn to apply your academic writing skills to their discipline. And eventually, your goal is to write for your work–for your future profession.

With each of these types of writing–general academic, specific discipline/major, and future profession–you’ll eventually become increasingly successful. As you learn the types better, you will find–like the experienced journalist on a quick deadline for a story–that often your writing will come more quickly and easily. However, whenever you have a major challenge in your future as a writer, you will know how to return to the circular or “recursive” steps of the process to develop difficult ideas, explain difficult concepts to your audience, and create pleasure and knowledge in both yourself and your audience because of your writing skills.

Five Evaluation Criteria

There are five criteria we can use to evaluate any piece of writing. These criteria are Focus, Development, Organization, Style, and Conventions.

Focus. What are you writing about? What claim or thesis are you defending? This criterion is the broadest, concerned with the context, purpose, and coherence of a piece of writing. Is your topic appropriate for an assignment? Do you stay on that topic or drift off on unhelpful tangents? Have you focused too minutely or too widely? For instance, an essay about the American Civil War in general is probably too broad for most college essays. You might be better off writing about a particular battle, general, or incident.

Development. Development is concerned with details and evidence. Do you provide enough supporting material to satisfy the expectations of your readers? A proper research paper, for instance, usually includes many references and quotations to many other relevant works of scholarship. A description of a painting would probably include details about its appearance, composition, and maybe even biographical information about the artist who painted it. Deciding what details to include depends on the intended audience of a piece. An article about cancer intended for young children would look quite different than one written for senior citizens.

Organization. Organization, often called “arrangement,” concerns the order and layout of a paper. Traditionally, a paper is divided into an introduction, body, and conclusion. Paragraphs are focused on a single main idea or topic (unity), and transitions between sentences and paragraphs are smooth and logical. A poorly organized paper rambles, drifting among unrelated topics in a haphazard and confusing fashion.

Style. Style is traditionally concerned with clarity, elegance, and precision. An effective stylist is not only able to write clearly for an audience, but can also please them with evocative language, metaphors, rhythm, or figures of speech. Effective stylists take pains not just to make a point, but to make it well.

Conventions. This criterion covers grammar, mechanics, punctuation, formatting, and other issues that are dictated by convention or rules. Although many students struggle with conventions, the knowledge of where to place a comma in a sentence is usually not as important as whether that sentence was worth writing in the first place. Nevertheless, excessive errors can make even a brilliant writer seem careless or ignorant, qualities that will seldom impress one’s readers.

Writing Process Steps

To avoid mistakes and communicate effectively, the writing process might consist of the following:


This is the planning done before writing a document. It may be defining the purpose of the task, analyzing the primary and secondary readers, sketching the document and what will go in each section, or gathering research.


This is writing and compiling a first draft of the document. Sometimes, the writer worries more about getting ideas down more than guaranteeing every punctuation or grammar choice is correct.


When a writer revises, a writer revisits the draft and makes substantial changes to it. This is more than editing. It is adding, deleting, and moving entire sections of the document around to prepare it as a final, comprehensive document. In fact, it is here that many writers ask others for feedback before revising to ensure that another, unbiased set of eyes have looked over the document and easily understand it.


This is the final part of the process. It is reading through the document several times while looking for clarity, consistency, and accuracy. In fact, consider reading your document aloud and listening to it as you do so instead of reading and “seeing” it. Most individuals communicate mostly through talking and listening. Therefore, when you read aloud, you can hear if something in your document doesn’t sound right and then correct it. You should be able to read it in a way that it is understandable and sounds conversational.

The writing process and process writing

Adapted from two textbooks: “Chapter 4 Technical Documents” of ENGL 145: Technical and Report Writing, 2017, written by Amber Kinonen and used according to Creative Commons CC-BY-4.0 The Stages of the Writing Process. from Rhetoric and Composition. Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 License; additional terms may apply.

Creative Prewriting Techniques

To help you further establish your prewriting process, the textbook English for Business Success introduces several prewriting techniques and encourages you to ask questions to help think more about your topic. Remember, you have more strategies available to you, some less linear and more creative, to help you begin your writing journey. These include brainstorming, idea mapping, and searching the Internet. While reading about these strategies, think about which strategy fits your writing style and then consider trying some of the other options to see how they work for you.


Figure 51: Brain Shooting Lightning, Creating a Brainstorm

Brainstorming is similar to list making. You can make a list on your own or in a group with your classmates. Start with a blank sheet of paper      (or a blank computer document) and write your general topic across the top. Underneath your topic, make a list of more specific ideas. Think      of  your general topic as a broad category and then list items that fit in that category. Often you will find that one item can lead to the next, creating a flow of ideas that can help you narrow your focus to a more specific paper topic.

Idea Mapping

Idea mapping allows you to visualize your ideas on paper using circles, lines, and arrows. This technique is also known as clustering because ideas are broken down and clustered, or grouped together.

Jennifer Schaller- Idea Mapping

Many writers like this method because the shapes show how the ideas relate or connect, and writers can find a focused topic from the connections mapped. Using idea mapping, you might discover interesting connections between topics that you had not thought of before.

idea map
Figure 52: Illustration of an Idea Map

To create an idea map, start with your general topic in a circle in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Then write specific ideas around it and use lines or arrows to connect them together. Add and cluster as many ideas as you can.

Searching the Internet

Using search engines on the internet is a good way to see what kinds of websites are available regarding your topic. Writers use search engines not only to understand more about the topic’s specific issues but also to get better acquainted with their audience.

When you search the internet, type some keywords from your broad topic or words from your narrowed focus into your browser’s search engine (many good general and specialized search engines are available for you to try). Then look over the results for relevant and interesting articles.

Not all the results that online search engines return will be useful or reliable. CNM’s Library offers additional information on evaluating online sources. Give careful consideration to the reliability of an online source before selecting a topic based on it. Remember that factual information can be verified in other sources, both online and in print. If you have doubts about any information you find, either do not use it or identify it as potentially unreliable. For more information, you can visit the following CNM Libraries.

Adapted from “Chapter Seven” of English for Business Success, 2012, used according to creative commons CC BY-NC-SA 3.0


Most students see outlines as a royal pain. But not only are they often central to writing-intensive courses, they are frequently required on the job; for example, a project manager may require each individual team member to outline and compose different portions of a joint report. Do not be seduced by the belief that an outline is totally useless or simply mechanical; this will only be true if you make it so.


Plenty of tips on writing outlines are available on the web on university webpages. Here are two recommended sites:

“Types of Outlines and Samples” article from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL)

“Using Outlines” article from Indiana University, Bloomington

The Value of Outlining

Outlines foster coherence by helping the writer to:

  • plan both the sequence and hierarchy of information.
  • make decisions about organization and content without the distraction of all the details of composition.
  • avoid repetition, digression, poor emphasis, and poor flow.
  • improve general organizational skills.

Considered in the light of the above ideal, outlines can be as fundamental to the writer as a flowchart is to the computer programmer. Good writers use outlines to flesh out their ideas, organize their thoughts, and discover their gaps.

Outlines can be writer-centered, of course, to aid you in expressing your ideas, but the material presented here assumes a reader-centered outline—i.e., one written for the eyes of a professor who will use the outline to provide you with some written feedback. As long as the mechanics of the outline are correct and the details concrete, most professors will not be too finicky about the quality of your outlining skills, and will simply take the opportunity to give you quick feedback on your ideas and organization.

Style for Outlines

When drafting an outline, keep the following stylistic tips in mind:

  • Compose a thorough working title for your paper, with the title offering a window into the paper’s purpose and content.
  • Double-space your type to allow room for comments.
  • Present headings as scientific categories and assertions rather than as informal speculations (i.e., “How Manganese Oxides Trap Heavy Metals” rather than “Just How Do Manganese Oxides Trap Heavy Metals?”).
  • Avoid presenting section headings as questions unless the questions themselves are especially compelling.
  • Be certain that headings work in relation to one another.
  • Avoid the use of acronyms in headings—write the material out.

When writing an outline for a class, even if you are unsure of what material to provide under each heading, include a draft of each major heading to demonstrate your overall plan and to encourage professor feedback.

Mechanics of Outlining

The mechanics of outlining are simple when stripped down to their essential elements. The two most common forms used are the Arabic System and the Decimal System. Indentations of a tab (1/2-inch or five spaces) are used to designate hierarchy of material, and order is indicated by sequential numbers, letters, or Roman numerals. Headings at the left margin are typically referred to as first-level headings, those indented one tab as second-level headings, and so on. The Decimal System requires a period between numbers, and note that, for both systems, the rising sequence of the numbers, letters, or Roman numerals is determined by the level of the heading under which a character falls.

Sample Outline Example

The attached outline contains first-level headings that reflect a common approach writers take when organizing their original research. As often happens, the writer’s first-level headings are somewhat generic, while the second- and third-level headings are more specialized to the subject matter of the essay. Note also the specificity of the title, of each section heading, and the relationships of the headings to each other. Such a detailed and professional outline helps the writer to keep organized during the writing process as well as gives the advisor an opportunity to give concrete feedback.

Adapted from Outlines by Joe Schall is a chapter in Style for Students Online, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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