5 Steps to Getting It Done: The Writing Process

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To do List with Pencil

Update: Check out our new infographic poster on The Writing Process.

Let’s face facts: Writing is hard work requiring extraordinary brain power. If you are learning how to write better or helping someone else learn to write better, never underestimate the mental labor writing demands. And because writing is hard for normal people, it’s wise to consider how to go about it the smartest way possible.

Think about how you would approach any difficult task. Whether your job is to plan a party, rebuild a lawn mower engine, or start a small business, the same basic strategy applies: plan carefully and take it one step at a time. Writing is no different. Too often students think of writing as a single task — something to sit down and bang out in one session. There are a few special people who can do that consistently, but they are the exceptions. For most of us, the only way to keep writing tasks from overloading our little brains is to break up the work into manageable steps. In other words, we need to view writing as a process.

Whether writing for you is a walk in the park or a slog through a swamp, taking it one piece at a time will make the journey more pleasant and productive. Let’s break down the writing process into five steps:

1. Prewriting: Getting It Together

This first step involves everything you do to prepare for writing. Sometimes — and probably too often — prewriting consists of nothing more than thinking about what to write. Prewriting, however, can involve varied activities like conducting an interview, doing research, surfing the web, studying literature, or asking advice. It might involve creating an outline or putting note cards in order. For less confident writers, it may involve fasting and praying!

The idea is that most people write better if they take their time and prepare for it. Athletes usually stretch and warm up before hitting the field for competition. Muscles need this kind of preparation to avoid injury. The brain is a muscle too. If you don’t warm it up sufficiently before the strenuous thinking that writing demands, you might end up with a very painful brain cramp!

Okay, that’s not likely, but wise prewriting really can help relieve the tension that results from staring at a blank sheet of paper with a deadline approaching.

2. First Draft: Getting It Down

The next step is composing a first draft, or “rough draft.” This can be difficult if you don’t keep the process in mind. Most of us want to get it right the first time. We have a hard time getting words out because we want them to sound perfect on the first try. But if the right word is escaping you, it’s better to get something down now and come back later to improve it. That’s why it’s called the first draft.

3. Revision: Getting It Right

During the revision stage of the writing process, you ask the big questions: Does this paper accomplish its intended purpose? Is it organized? Is it clear? Is it appropriate to its audience? Revision looks at the whole paper. During this stage, you may make big changes. You might change your point of view or the tone of the paper. You might change the order of your paragraphs or eliminate one of them completely. You might add a whole new idea or change your mind about your conclusion.

None of these things is required, but a wise writer is willing to make whatever changes are necessary to make his or her work more effective.

4. Proofreading & Final Draft: Getting It Perfect

Okay, nothing is perfect, but that’s what you’re shooting for. Proofreading is different from revision because by this time you should be confident that the content of the paper is generally on target. In proofreading you go over it with a magnifying glass, looking for the little things that spoil an otherwise excellent piece of writing. Now is the time to check spelling, usage and mechanics. The proofreading stage is where you look for ways to tighten sloppy sentences or replace an imprecise word with exactly the right one.

The result of conscientious proofreading is a final draft—the finished product.

5. Publishing: Getting It Read

People often forget this, but writing is supposed to be for a reason. Of course when you are taking a writing class, the purpose tends to be only to impress your teacher. But learning to write should prepare you for writing effectively in the real world. One day you will write real things for real situations: A memo to folks in your office, a thank you note to your Aunt Zelda, a letter of complaint to a manufacturer, an essay to the college admissions office, and so on.

The publishing step of the writing process doesn’t necessarily mean your work ends up in the local paper or a national magazine, but that it gets to those for whom it was written.

Five steps. Yikes! The writing process can seem intimidating, but if following these steps looks like more work to you than you expected, you’ve misunderstood.  Remember, writing is already hard work. Breaking the work into manageable steps is a way to make it easier, and, in the end, more successful.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian Wasko

Brian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.

View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Merri Larsen
    Merri Larsen07-07-2011

    It truly helps to break the writing process into these predictable steps. Great ideas!

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