‘The’ Writing Process. Sounds rather official, doesn’t it? The time honoured method that is taught in schools and held up as the Gold Standard method of structuring writing. ‘The’ Writing Process consists of four immobile stages: Planning, Drafting, Revising and Editing, each with a set of activities belonging to it, and each expected to flow naturally into the next. And to be fair, this method does indeed work for some writers.
But writing is complex and so are writers. When researchers in the 1970s and 1980s began to look at the ways many established writers actually write, they found that things weren’t always so simple. The stages could be merged. Editing and revising can happen throughout the writing process. An author may repeat stages, redrafting or replanning as more material is found. I personally like to proofread and tidy my work as a ‘break’ task, keeping my mind in the assignment while getting over writer’s block.
Many writers research as they go along, finding that one piece of information will lead to another, which can be added into a frame of pre-written work. Others find such a chaotic approach distracting and need a well researched initial plan. The same writer may even employ multiple processes, depending on what they’re working on. How rigidly do you yourself follow the Plan, Draft, Edit, Revise model?
The main focus for us, as writing mentors, is to use this understanding to aid our clients. You may be able to work out a writer’s process simply by engaging with them as they write. Questions such as “How do you normally plan your assignments?” “What would you usually do when you reach this stage?” or “So this is just your initial draft, isn’t it?” probe deeper. It may be that the mentee’s struggles result from using a process which is unsuited them. Or the process may normally work, but will need adapting for new writing styles- a common problem when entering the world of academic writing!
If it seems that an unsuitable writing process is part of the issue, here are a few tips which could be handy.
Not only a case of which stage, but how to revise. Heavily? Touch-up-as-you-go? Get it nearly right first time? Some writers are the mad creative type, who plunge into making and tidy up afterwards. Others are more perfectionist and want to write a high quality essay in one go. On the other hand, worrying too much about getting things right can stop the writer doing any writing to start with. Editing and proofreading can also be a semi-procrastination exercise, positive or negative. Some writers find it editing a relaxing exercise, others frustrating. Where is the mentee’s comfort zone in all this?
Forming a rigid plan at the start of an assignment can cause writers’ block, stress and poor flow, as well as prohibit the addition of new material. While some plan is generally needed, (or form part of the assignment brief), don’t get bogged down in it. Reviewing the plan midway through can be helpful. It is even possible to just ‘get everything down’ and then edit and give meaning afterwards, especially with the miracle of the word processor. The plan is there to give support and direction, but heavy editing afterwards can give a similar finished product, depending on the writer.
Metacognition, or ‘thinking about thinking’ is a handy tool for reflection, development and linking different parts of the writing process together. Questions such as “who is the expected reader?” “How helpful was the planning process for this piece, and how could you improve on it?” “Do you think this piece clearly covers everything it set out to?” can help with this. Basically, try to encourage the writer to think deeply and broadly about not just their writing, but how they write it. It can be so easy to get buried in an assignment, just taking a step back to assess the way you’re going about it can iron out issues. Some of these may be obvious to the onlooker, but not to the individual themself. Hence the mentor’s role as a sounding board! Metacognition generally aids independence of both thought and study. To grow into an independent, confident writer, developing the ability to see the ‘big picture’ will aid you. Not just as a writer, either.