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© Walden University Writing Center 2013
Writing experts Brittany and Nik share insights and tips on the writing process. Timestamps for discussion segments: Brainstorming, 3:23; Outlining, 6:53; Drafting, 10:43; Revising, 11:51; Proofreading/Editing, 12:45.
[Opening music plays, fades and continues in the background.]
NIK: Welcome to WriteCast, a casual conversation for serious writers. I’m Nikolas Nadeau.
BRITTANY: And I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson. Every other week, we’ll explore a different aspect of academic writing in a way that’s informative but also approachable, and, we have to admit it, a little quirky.
NIK: This week’s topic? The writing process. What is it exactly? How does it change from person to person?
BRITTANY: Or from paper to paper? We’ll talk a little bit about our own processes as writers, and give you some useful, easy-to-implement tips for developing your own process.
BRITTANY: So Nik, I’ve been thinking a lot about the writing process over the last few days as we’ve been thinking about this podcast episode. One of the best places to turn for advice about writing is other writers.
NIK: Definitely, yeah.
BRITTANY: I like to read quotes from different writers about their writing process; I think it’s really interesting to learn what they have to say about their process, and I came across this great one in a book of quotes about writing that I found, by German novelist Thomas Mann. It goes like this: “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
NIK: Yeah, that’s pretty much on the mark, Brittany. I mean, you know, if you’re a full time writer, I feel like it’s a lot harder, because you have higher expectations for yourself.
BRITTANY: Right, but I also think that you don’t have to be somebody who gets paid to write in order to consider yourself a writer. Right? I mean, here’s what Mann is saying: If you find writing difficult, you’re a writer. If you find it easy, you’re probably not a writer.
NIK: Yeah, well I think there’s linear writers, you know that go from step one to step two, and then there’s non-liner writers, where you have maybe step one and step three and go back to step two and four and five, and for everyone it’s going to be different and we definitely realize and encourage that. But what we wanted to do today is figure out how to break down the process, analyze it, and hopefully unpack it to allow you to reflect on what your own process is and how it works
BRITTANY: Right. That’s one of the things we really want to talk about today. Trying to unpack a little bit the process from getting from a blank sheet of paper or a blank document on your computer screen to that finished product that you feel really proud of.
BRITTANY: So, we’re going to kind of jump right in and talk about some different tips for the writing process. We’re going to talk about five main categories of the writing process and we’re going to talk about them in a specific order, but I want to really emphasize for our listeners is that these are fluid categories, they’re categories that you can approach in an order that feels comfortable to you, so if you feel you like to take them out of the order that we’re presenting them today, feel free to do that. They’re pretty fluid, right Nik? They’re kind of something you can play around with a little bit.
NIK: Yeah, I agree Brittany. So, I would say the first step, if you’re going chronologically, is brainstorming. [Music.]
BRITTANY: Probably a lot of our listeners will have done brainstorming in some form or other, but we want to talk a little bit about some specific techniques that are useful when you’re getting started writing a paper.
BRITTANY: And one of the things that I like to do as I’m brainstorming is to have just a blank document on my screen that is not my paper. So, I actually have a different document that I title my paper and then minimize it on my screen. So that takes the pressure off; I’m not writing my paper, I’m just brainstorming on this other sheet of paper, and I just type, I mean, without knowing at all what I’m going to say, and crazy stuff sometimes will come out, stuff that’s completely irrelevant to my work.
NIK: So. Brittany, is this a stream of consciousness kind of thing?
BRITTANY: Yes, exactly, stream of consciousness is the perfect phrase to describe it. It’s basically a way for me to get my thoughts flowing. And, believe it or not, if I type nonsense for long enough—I mean, it might be five or ten minutes or even longer—eventually, a little gem of an idea will show up and I’ll feel like I have something that I can start to build on for my actual paper.
NIK: Definitely, yeah.
BRITTANY: I mean, typing anything is better than typing nothing, but one way you can keep in mind as you’re doing this exercise is to use it as a way to think through your thoughts on the page. So it is stream of consciousness but at the same time it’s a way to almost journal about your topic a little bit. I sometimes journal and there’s really no pressure to sound good in your journal, right? That’s kind of what this exercise is like as well; it’s a way of thinking through your ideas: things you’ve been discussing in your course, things that your classmates or your instructor said, things that you’ve been thinking about, and trying to process that on the page, but without any pressure to put things into paragraph form or even sentence form—you don’t have to spell things right. So, it really helps to take the pressure of sounding good off and kind of turn off that internal editor and get those ideas out there so you can start to discover what you actually think about the topic. That’s what I do!
NIK: And I think, Brittany, that when you’re in the middle of that process, for some people they may need a more visual set-up, perhaps with post-it notes or a whiteboard. Other people they will take maybe more of a linear approach where they have legal paper and they maybe start to brainstorm in the form of outlining which we’re going to talk about in a minute. I think the point is to fight that blank page—whatever you can do to make sure that blank page does not stay blank, that it’s not staring you in the face. Because this is really where writer’s block can start, is when at the very beginning you feel overwhelmed. I don’t know about you Brittany, but I just tell myself to, frankly, lower my expectations. Whatever I write could end up being the world’s next greatest essay or dissertation or paper for a class, but usually, if that’s the case, it’s not going to be that way until a long time later and that’s okay.
NIK: So Brittany, have you ever found that when you’re brainstorming and getting your ideas together, do you do a sequence like I do? Because I tend to do Roman numerals, like Roman numeral one, sub-point A, sub-sub-point 1, period. You know, like you learned in middle school. That frankly helps me because I’m a logical linear thinker. But maybe that isn’t the approach that most normal people take, I’m not sure. [Laughs.]
BRITTANY: [Laughs]. Well, I wouldn’t call you abnormal at all but it sounds like you’re an outliner.
NIK: [Laughs.] Well good, thank you, that’s on record, that’s good.
BRITTANY: [Laughs.] Yeah! I mean basically, what you’re doing if you’re creating those roman numerals and sub-points A, B, C, and so forth is you’re making an outline, and while that isn’t the way that I approach it I think that’s the way a lot of people approach it and is a really great way to do it if you can. I actually spent a lot of time feeling like there was something wrong with me because I didn’t feel comfortable outlining first. And that kind of goes back to what we want to say, right, about the fluidity of this process. Some people are going to find that this works really well for them for the way their brain works to get started with outlining right off the bat, like Nik. Other people might find that that feels a little bit too scary to kind of map your whole idea out in exactly the right order right away.
NIK: Definitely. Scary or just rigid, you know, too rigid.
BRITTANY: Exactly. I think it could kind of come down to a left brain right brain break-down too.
NIK: Yeah, yeah it could.
BRITTANY: I don’t know if our listeners think about themselves that way but I always think about myself as more of a right brained person.
NIK: Oh, I’m definitely left brain dominant when it comes to that stuff.
BRITTANY: Yeah, so that makes sense! The choice to kind of get things in order first makes more sense with the left brain; the choice to kind of go crazy and fix it later is more of a right brained choice.
NIK: Go crazy and fix it later—yeah, that could summarize the opposite approach, I guess. [Laughs.]
BRITTANY: [Laughs.] Yeah. So tell me a little bit more about your outlining process.
NIK: Well, I guess when I have my Roman numeral scheme, I’ll go and type that out. And what I like about working on my laptop is that I can copy and paste and shuffle things around. But I think for me the most important thing is to start very skeletal, have that, you know, those bare bones things.
BRITTANY: And as you continue to write and research it’s very possible that it will need to change. The last thing that you want to do, I think as a writer, is to get so obsessed with your first idea that you can’t see, as you continue to go down the road of the writing process, that that idea isn’t working, or that maybe you have disproved that idea.
NIK: Definitely, yeah. Writing a scholarly paper, so to speak, an academic work, is creative. You have to create something about of stuff that exists already. You’re in the ocean of all that research that you can find on Academic Search Premier, etc., and then you have to somehow out of that ocean emerge with something new, some new, I don’t know piece of coral, a new jellyfish, something that is new and that readers can latch onto and look at and say—hey, that’s not something I’ve seen before, that’s something that I hadn’t quite thought of in that way. But to arrive at that isn’t, at least for me, is not instant. And you’ll find as a writer that sometimes you’ll change what that particular thing is that you arrive at later, and I think that’s a healthy thing, that’s a good sign that what you’re doing as a writer is organic and that you’re constantly questioning and inquiring.
BRITTANY: Yeah, exactly, that’s such a good point. And I think the scariest part really can be that next step, where you’re actually fleshing your ideas out into paragraphs, right. So we call this the drafting stage. [Music.] And I really think that that’s the part where, to continue your metaphor, Nik, you’re really kind of trying to create that, what did you call it, a jellyfish? [Laughs.]
NIK: Well I don’t know, maybe some people have a jellyfish phobia, I don’t want to bring back evil memories of getting stung by a jellyfish in Guam or something.
BRITTANY: [Laughs.] Well I do really like the idea of academic writing as a creative process, and I think that that’s really what’s happening in the drafting process especially, is where you’re kind of fleshing out those outline components, right, that you’ve made. So you have your roman numerals that have some, a basic skeleton of an argument that is still fluid, that you’re still allowing to change as you continue to research and read. But it’s really this writing process that allows you to continue to flesh out those ideas, right?
NIK: Yeah, I agree Brittany.
BRITTANY: So, after that drafting stage, now we’re really talking about the revising stage. [Music.] A lot of writers tend to think that revising is taking their draft, checking it for spelling errors, and maybe having somebody look it over to make sure that they didn’t miss any commas, and, you know, slapping their name on it and turning it in. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the quick turnaround that happens in academic coursework. You’ve got a week to write something, you don’t have time to, you know, run it through ten revisions. But, I do really recommend that writers start as early as they can so they can do one or two revisions, and so that they can really look at their writing from the point of view of an outside reader. [Music.]
NIK: And as we look into the last process, number five if you’re counting—proofreading and editing—I would just wholly recommend with my entire being to save that for last. And that’s because, what if you perfect a paragraph but then your chair looks at it and he or she is like, “Yeah, sorry, we gotta scrap that.” You know, that’s not going to be good news. I definitely recommend from my own personal experience of getting burned at the last stage of the process to save that focus on grammar and punctuation until the end, unless it’s really impeding someone’s understanding. And of course Brittany, that’s why it’s important to have that second and third reader to let you know what’s happening but also say, “Look, you can save that for the end, except maybe here, this was a little off, and that’s a very important sentence”—you know, things like that.
NIK: I think it’s really important to, even if you’re in that polishing stage, to look back and reflect, “Okay how did I get here? What did I do to arrive at this gorgeous piece of writing I have? And are there places that I could swallow pride and say, hey, this could be tweaked?” Maybe you’ve already found that sometimes you’ll arrive, even if you have something that’s golden, you’ll arrive at something that’s, I don’t know, diamond, right? Something that’s even better. And I think that process, when it ends, is totally up to you. You don’t want to be a work-in-progress until you’re 80 years old, right? But that’s also essential.
BRITTANY: Right, yeah, exactly right, I think you just hit the nail on the head there, Nik.
NIK: Brittany we just have a couple minutes here. I want to make sure that we bring back these five steps of the process that we’ve presented today. So first is brainstorming—
BRITTANY: The second one is outlining—
NIK: Number three, writing the first draft—
BRITTANY: Number four, revising for argument—
NIK: And number five, proofreading and editing for grammar, punctuation, little small stuff like that.
NIK: Well, this wraps up our first episode.
BRITTANY: Listeners, keep in mind that we are available to you for one-on-one paper reviews, which you can find out how to sign up for by visiting our website, which is writingcenter.waldenu.edu. And we also have some other really helpful resources as well—do you want to point students to those, Nik?
NIK: Brittany, we have a ton of stuff and I would definitely recommend our webinars. You go to the homepage, you’ll see on the right-hand side a tab, just below the search box, it’s called, “Tutoring.” And if you hover over that with your mouse, you’ll see five options come up, and the second from the bottom—that’s called “Webinars.” So if you click on that, you’ll get to our Webinars page. And this is where the schedule is, where you can register for our upcoming webinars, and then if you scroll down, you’ll find our archive. So if you jump to the heading, “Scholarly Writing Webinars,” the fifth from the bottom, it’s “Life Cycle of a Paper.” And that’s a great webinar to have on hand, because it relates almost exactly to what we’ve been talking about today.
BRITTANY: Thanks for listening everybody! Join us in two weeks for our next episode, which we’ll advertise on our website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter.
NIK: This podcast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center.
BRITTANY: This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson, my co-host, Nikolas Nadeau, and Anne Shiell.
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