The Writing Process
Most secondary schools teach the assembly-line process of writing. In this method, writers follow a certain set of steps that proceed in order from initial idea to completed essay in the same way that raw materials enter one end of a factory and finished products come out the other. In truth, the writing process is much less linear and much less orderly than this method suggests. It does not go in strict order—prewriting, drafting, and revising. Those steps are useful as mileposts, but they happen repetitively, not sequentially.
The worst possible way to write an essay is to sit down at a computer, open a new document file, and try to write from the first sentence through to the end. Writing the essay this way will be tedious, formulaic, and boring. This is precisely the reason many students resist writing, and it often results in poorly organized or underdeveloped arguments. Writing doesn’t have to be that way.
While writing does generally happen in phases, they are not distinct or orderly. Rather than focusing on writing as a process of putting words on paper, think of it as a process of creating ideas. An essay is, after all, an arrangement of ideas to make an argument. Your professor will give you an assignment that sets some parameters with a topic and a length. The central idea in the essay is your position on the topic, your thesis. A good place to start is to think about how you feel about the topic or how you would answer the question it asks. The objective is to formulate an opinion that you will support in your essay. This is your working thesis, and it will likely change before you’re done. This process is messy.
Once you have a notion of what you think, come up with as many reasons for why you think this way as possible. Some people call this method brainstorming or listing, but it doesn’t need a formal name. Some people will brainstorm before formulating a working thesis, which is fine. The objective here is to get as many reasons or ideas about the topic as possible. You can’t have too many because you won’t use all of them. Some of them won’t be as strong as the others. When you have some ideas together, figure out which ones you like or which ones make a compelling point, and also reconsider your thesis. You might make it stronger if you shift your position a bit or make it more specific.
Making a Plan
When you feel like you have some good ideas, put them into a logical order. This may be the most important step in writing an essay because an argument always works best when the reader can follow the ideas. If you notice gaps in the argument, you may need to brainstorm more ideas, or if you see tangents in the argument, you may need to cut ideas. Or you may need to experiment with several different arrangements. At this stage, ideas are flexible, so don’t be afraid to make big changes. You should also reconsider the relationship between your thesis and all of the other ideas you have. If they aren’t directly related, reshape the thesis or rearrange the ideas. The objective is to generate a writing plan, a blueprint for your essay that you can use as a guideline when you actually write. You may have been taught to create a formal outline. If that helps you organize your ideas, then do it, but your writing plan does not need to be elaborate. A rough list or set of bullet points will often work fine.
Putting Words to Paper
With a writing plan prepared, you should be ready to write the essay. You’ll notice that once you’ve organized some ideas the act of writing is much less stressful and much less time consuming than it is without a writing plan. Think about writing not as composing polished prose but as translating ideas into words, simply getting them onto a page. Allow yourself to write what Anne Lamott calls a “sh*tty first draft.” At this point in the process, ideas can still move around, the thesis can still change, nothing is final. The only objective is to explain your ideas.
Revisit, Revise, Improve
What comes next is probably the hardest part of writing an essay, reading your own ideas critically. In order to clarify your ideas, you need to get some distance from them so they are less familiar to you. One way to do this is to let a couple of days go by without working on the essay, but deadlines are often short, so you may not have this option. Another way is to have a person you trust read the paper for you, but not all of your friends will read critically, at least not if they intend to remain your friends.
If your only option is to do it yourself and do it quickly, try playing the doubting game. Find your thesis, and ask yourself if a person could argue against it. If another reasonable person could not argue against your thesis, you have a problem because your thesis may be either an observation or a statement of fact. Your essay is supposed to be an argument, so another person should be able to argue against your position. If you’re satisfied with the thesis, look at the reasons that support your thesis and put yourself in the position of doubting them by arguing against your thesis. When you identify weak spots, think of ways that you could make them stronger. This may require that you go back to the brainstorming stage or that you make large cuts in the in the writing. That is perfectly fine. In fact, you will know that you are a sophisticated writer when you can make these kinds of changes on your own.
When you think you have a persuasive set of ideas, then you can focus your attention on the paragraphs and sentences. Each paragraph should have a clear topic, the topic should be fully developed, and the sentences should all be connected. All of the sentences should be free from surface errors. A good way to check for sentence problems is to read the essay backwards by starting with the last sentence in the essay, reading it separately from the paragraph, fixing any problems, and then moving to the sentence before it. This technique keeps you from skimming over the sentences.
Invest the Time
At this point, you may be thinking that the method described here doesn’t sound all that different from the version you already learned. That’s true, but the messiness in this version, the practice of revisiting each earlier stage as you move to another stage, is absolutely crucial. Writing an argument is the most powerful way to learn about an issue because it uses enormous intellectual energy, and the human mind does not always work in clear, linear patterns. Instead, the process or recursive and reiterative; it goes back and forth, not from beginning to end.
The most troublesome worry you are likely to have is that this looks like a time-consuming process. But writing an essay doesn’t have to take forever and spending your time creating a writing plan is much more productive than staring blankly at your monitor. Writing an essay, however, should not be easy. It should actually be one of the most difficult intellectual challenges you face in college, and it is definitely the most important skill you will learn in college. That is why we require that every Mercer undergraduate spend a full year in FYS. The purpose behind college is not merely to jump through hoops so that you can get into med school or get a six figure job. It is to learn how to think critically, and writing an essay is the best way to do that.