If you search for advice on the writing process, you’ll be inundated with examples of why we tell you not to just search for things.
The writing process is a topic that tends to provoke conflicting advice and strong opinions. Muriel Spark, for instance, insisted that the best thing for your writing process would be to get a cat (11/10 would recommend). Jack Kerouac once claimed that he lit a special writing candle whilst keeping an eye out for a full moon (cannot recommend this one). Anthony Trollope famously dashed off three thousand words at 5.30 every morning before going to his full-time office job, and still found the time to invent the post box (love that for him, but again, not recommended).
At the other end of the spectrum, you will find advice that insists the process is actually incredibly straightforward, and this is just as unrealistic. Whilst most of us can’t sit around lighting candles and waiting for the Muse to descend, it is utterly unhelpful to be told that writing is straightforward and can be done in “just a few easy steps”. No matter how experienced a writer you are, these so-called “easy” steps often feel more like the ones designed by M. C. Escher. Anyone who tells you that writing is easy is either bending the truth or doing something wrong (unless they are in fact Anthony Trollope).
Manageable steps, not ‘easy’ steps
So on the one hand, you’ve got the arcane and impractical writer’s routines that have padded out the hallowed pages of the Paris Review for decades (subscription available via the Library!). On the other, you have people telling you that it’s all actually very straightforward. Surely there must be a sensible compromise?
Good news – there is. We’re not here to tell you that academic writing is an absolute breeze. It is challenging, and it’s designed to be, so don’t worry if it isn’t all coming together as quickly as you’d like. Developing our academic writing is an ongoing process for all of us, not matter how experienced we are. That said, you can certainly break it down into a clear and feasible series of stages. The key here is to think in terms of manageable steps, rather than ‘easy’ ones.
The Writing Process Resource
To help you do this, we’ve created an online resource which breaks down the writing process to guide you through it. It can be particularly helpful to think of writing in this way if you’re getting too focused on producing the perfect end result – think ’process’ rather than ‘product’. Take a look at the video here, and take a look at the following tips for each stage of the process.
Start with an overview of the steps you need to take…
It sounds obvious, but make sure you have a clear idea of what steps you’ll need to take, from planning to proofreading. No one sits down and produces a perfectly polished draft from start to finish in one sitting. The Writing Process video identifies four key stages to consider:
- Finding and reading sources
…And remember that in reality, the steps aren’t always linear
It’s absolutely fine if your writing process looks less like a straight line and more like a series of squiggles and loops – the point of writing advice is to aid your writing process, and that will look different for everyone. If you know that you write slowly and fear you’ll never reach the word count, your process is going to look different to the people who write too much too quickly and have to remove words to avoid going over the word count.
The writing process is not a race to the finishing line, and you don’t have write everything in the order it eventually appears on the page. For example, it can be helpful to leave your introduction until last. It’s easy to start off by drafting an introduction just to get going, and then abandoning it for a while and coming back to it. This often results in an introduction that bears little resemblance to the main body of the essay. Whereas, if you write your introduction after you’ve written the main body, you can give your reader clear directions about your overall approach to the question, and you can signpost them regarding the structure of your essay. Your introduction needs to introduce what you’ve actually written, rather than what you thought you were going to write before you actually finished it. Sometimes it’s good to take the road less travelled by rather than a simplistic route from A to B.
The importance of reviewing and reflecting throughout the writing process
It’s important to consider how you’re going to reflect and review your work. It’s much easier to do this throughout the writing process than leaving it until the end. When you’re on a roll and the words are flowing (or, more realistically, when you just want to get it out of the way as quickly as possible), it’s easy to just empty every fact you can think of out of your brain and onto the page. This can result in essays which don’t really answer the question, and assignments which are hard to mark because they don’t address the brief consistently. We’ve all seen (and written!) those essays which ignore the actual question after the introduction is finished, and then forget about it until the conclusion rolls around. Rather than an info-dump sandwiched between an introduction and a conclusion, your work needs to address the question consistently throughout. Pausing to reflect and review throughout the process will help ensure that you avoid submitting a ‘fact sandwich’ essay. Ask yourself:
- Does this paragraph/section have a clear purpose?
- Is this sentence/paragraph/quotation really addressing the question, or is it just there to pad out the word count?
- If I were reading this for the first time, would I be able to identify a clear argument?
Taking the first step
Hopefully this has helped move you a bit further towards writing something that you’re happy with. What will your first/next step be? If you’re still stuck, the Academic Skills Kit section on academic writing has some great advice and strategies to help you get going. You can also book into one of our workshops, or find out more about the on-to-one academic skills provision we offer. Although if you do try out the cats and candles option, we’d love to know how it turns out!