Four Stages of Writing
The creative process of writing can be very enjoyable if one understands what is involved. It can also be very frustrating if one goes about it haphazardly. There are many ways to think about the process of writing a paper, but the following four stages are basic: I) selecting a topic, II) free writing, III) revising and refining, and IV) technical check.
I. Selecting a Topic
Depending on the course, you may be assigned a paper topic, given a list of suggested topics, or told to come up with your own. In my courses, I generally provide a list of suggested topics, and students can formulate their own topics with my permission (obtained by email). If you want to formulate your own topic, it can be useful to look at the suggested topics for ways to focus your ideas. Suggested topics are created with page length and course-level in mind; by examining them you can find clues on how to focus your ideas and structure your paper.
Once you have selected or formulated your topic, you need to think about how you will go about your writing your paper and constructing your story. The narrative of your paper may change as you find new ideas and/or facts, so you don't have to have everything worked out, but you should have some idea of where you want to go. (For ideas about the structure of a paper, see "Forms of Argument" in my other essay "Four Keys to Writing in the Humanities.")
II. Free Writing
Once you have chosen your topic, you want to work your ideas out on paper, but if you try to write a polished paper from the beginning, you are likely to stifle your own creativity. It is like someone trying to create an oil painting by going straight to the final canvas without doing some sketches. Seeing the beautiful white expanse, one is so nervous about making mistakes that it is hard to even begin. In order to let the creative juices flow, it can be very helpful to just start writing ideas down. You can play with the introductory or thesis paragraph, dive into the body of your paper, or just jot ideas down that you think will fit together eventually. I have provided a separate essay on the creative process of writing including free writing in "Writing: The Bridge between Consciousness and Unconsciousness." Since almost everyone needs to engage in some degree of free writing, it is very important that you leave enough time for sketching out ideas and doing drafts.
III. Revising and Refining
Once you have your ideas down on paper (or the monitor screen), you can begin to tighten the structure of your paper, fill in the necessary ideas and documentation, and check for logical consistency. This usually takes place over two or three drafts. For the structure of your paper, see "Four Keys to Writing in the Humanities." For a more detailed discussion of the elements of content, grammar, and style, see my "Paper Writing Guidelines." It can also be very helpful to run your ideas by a classmate, friend, or the instructor and to have them read drafts. (If you would like others to read your drafts, be sure to give them enough lead time.)
IV. Technical Check
Once you have completed your paper, you still need to go over it one more time to make sure that it is complete. Put it through a spellchecker, make sure that you have put your name and a title on the paper, and check for other things such as page numbers, footnotes, and a bibliography. These are all very basic, and no paper is complete without them, but it can be easy to forget to check for spelling or even to put in page numbers. I have provided a "Checklist for Papers" to facilitate the process of doing a final technical check.
If you keep in mind these four stages as you begin to write, then you will see that the creative process of composing a paper is orderly yet open enough so that you can allow your own creativity and insights to find articulate expression.
© Mark T. Unno 2000