Every year, new writing consultants in the WRC training course are asked to draw their writing process. It’s an interesting exercise in understanding the many ways writers approach writing. When I was in the course, this exercise also prompted me to actively reflect on my own process.
In comparing our drawings of the writing process, we came to several conclusions. Generally, useful phases of the process include pre-writing, revision, and editing. The process does not always flow neatly in that order, however. Sometimes, we might be in the revision phase of a writing assignment and temporarily revert back to the drafting phase, because we realize that what we thought we were saying was not actually what we said. Sometimes, there are multiple documents saved on our laptops, such as “Assignment,” “Assignment Final,” and “Assignment FINAL Final.” Writing is not linear, and the multi-directional arrows in our diagrams of the writing process reflect its messiness.
Dr. Sharon Zuber, who was director of the Writing Resources Center at the time, told us “writing is thinking.” I have come to realize that she is right. In articulating an argument by compiling evidence, analyses, and ideas, writing is a way of making sense of what we have learned. This interpretation can apply to any type of writing: academic writing, creative writing, and even journaling.
When approaching a writing assignment, sometimes the struggle lies in getting started. Maybe it’s hard to determine a thesis, or know what to include in the introduction, leaving us with an intimidating blinking cursor on an empty white page. As a consultant, I have been able to observe many different people in the process of writing, and I realize that I am not alone in struggling with starting a paper. Logically, I have come to understand that the writing process is not linear. However, approaching the writing process in a nonlinear manner is more difficult to put into practice.
In learning how to get started, I have found that it is useful sometimes to start from the center. Yes, starting from the center can mean coming to the Writing Resources Center with assignments for a second pair of eyes at any phase during the writing process. But it also means cranking out the body paragraph you already know how to write. Starting from the middle is okay—as long as you later fix your introduction, thesis, and conclusion to match. Consider the concept of a “working thesis.” If you have an idea of what you want to argue, getting caught up in the sentence-level details too early can get in the way. I have noticed that obsessing over details like word choice distracts me from the bigger picture. It can be helpful to jot down anything that can act as a thesis or argument to structure your paper, and focus on refining your argument later on. Sometimes, it is easier to find that specific word when your argument becomes more cohesive as you continue writing your paper.
Some of the hesitance in starting from the center may stem from a fear of confusing the reader by disrupting the flow of the paper. Though it is important to consider the audience, writing as a process is not neat and orderly. By giving yourself enough time to edit your draft and make sure it is cohesive, you allow yourself space to get your thoughts out and worry about the overall cohesiveness and flow of the paper later. Sometimes, what may have been the first body paragraph in the outline becomes the third body paragraph in the final paper.
To-do lists that break the project into small, manageable steps can give you a clear path to follow. But when you are feeling stuck, allow yourself to succumb to the mess that is thinking and that is writing. It might be just what you need!