The Process of Writing: Examples & Tips

Writing can be intimidating, harrowing, mysterious. Thinking about the process of writing—breaking the act down into simpler steps—can help demystify it. Used sensibly, a process model of writing combines two seemingly contradictory elements: on the one hand it simplifies writing by treating it as a series of simpler steps; on the other it stresses how dynamic writing is, and the way that thinking and writing are intertwined. suggests a four-step process model:

  • generating ideas
  • mapping the argument
  • composing a draft
  • revising.

The steps overlap and interact. Revision, for instance, typically sharpens ideas and improve an argument’s organization.

Generating ideas

How does one decide what to say in an essay? The usual advice is to write about what interests you. The notion of expressive writing, indeed, encourages students to present their personal reactions to whatever they’re studying. In a lot of ways that’s a good thing, but sometimes it can make writers think that any idea is as good as another, as long as it’s “honest.”

But where you start is critical to determining where you end up, and how strong your essay will be. A foolish idea or tired angle, no matter how honest and heartfelt, means at best a mediocre essay. Thus writing about what interests or appeals to you isn’t very helpful advice for students. There’s no guarantee that what interests you will spark an interesting paper for others (especially for that Cerberus with a gradebook, your teacher).

So here are six tried-and-true ways to help generate good ideas. None of them, except perhaps the last, is a quick fix. They’re really lifetime mental habits you should inculcate, the sooner the better.

1. Read

Would you rather build a house out of bricks or straw? Same with essays. If you want to build strong essays, you need good material. In the short term that comes from solid research, the hours spent studying the topic, reading and taking careful notes. But research, vital as it is, is a relatively narrow activity.

Beyond research, a good writer needs to develop a lifelong habit of reading. Real writers read a lot—newspapers, magazines, journals, scholarly books, history, memoirs, novels, even poetry. I’m not talking about seeking out information on a particular topic, but reading broadly about nature, science, history, culture, politics, commerce. “That tempting range of relevancies,” George Eliot called the universe, and indeed to a person who has cultivated her curiosity everything connects, and anything can spark a good idea or insight. Cultivate a lifelong habit of reading and reflection.

You’d like some reading suggestions? It depends on you, of course, but if you really want a starting-point, here’s a bare-bones periodicals guide:

  • General news, etc.: the New York Times (, free). Great coverage of news, politics, culture, etc., plus a bonus of terrific expository writing. Among the many highlights: well-written op-ed columns, Science Times on Tuesdays, movie and art reviews, the Times Book Review on Sundays, and the language column in the Sunday Magazine.
  • Commerce: the Wall Street Journal ( Besides the obvious, a surprising number of fascinating stories about the human side of business.
  • Science: Science Magazine ( Heavy going for laymen, but must reading for scientists-in-training. For popular science coverage check out Discover Magazine ( or the somewhat weightier Scientific American (, whose online site has a great bookmark feature.
  • History: The Journal of Modern History (, one example of a leading scholarly history journal. Coverage of Europe since the Renaissance. For easier reading, I’d recommend the excellent companion web sites to PBS’ many superb documentaries, which you can find at
  • E-culture: ( A leading webzine with sharp takes on American culture, such as it is, including extensive book reviews and reading lists.

One more recommendation: the inevitable Check out the best-selling titles and Amazon’s recommendations in whatever category you’re interested in.

2. Suspend judgment

Another good way to generate good ideas is to develop the habit of suspending judgment as you read and study. Most people make poor arguers because they’ve already made up their minds before they ever open their mouths or put pen to paper. Passionate partisanship sometimes produces brilliant argument, but most of the time it diminishes an argument’s power by acting as a kind of mental blinder, leading the writer to ignore anything that doesn’t fit her preconceived argument.

So keep Aristotle’s stricture in mind. Read to learn, not just to shore up what you already think you know.

3. Problematize

One of the first things grad students learn as they undertake their advanced studies is to “problematize”—to look for problems in whatever it is they’re studying as the basis for their own work. It’s excellent advice for undergraduates faced with writing papers, as well. Don’t just read texts or study data looking for answers: look for questions, for tensions, for unresolved issues. Those provide the critical openings for you to say something new, to take a fresh tack on an old issue. In the ideal case one not only comes up with a penetrating question, but a sharp answer as well, but often the question is all that really matters.

To make the essay feel complete, as a general rule you should at least suggest the best reasonable answer, or several reasonable answers; you might also propose how one would go about answering the question in the future.

If this advice seems a little weird and risky—”You want me to write essays that ask questions and don’t answer them?” (not exactly, but close)—try a little exercise: ask your teachers whether they’d rather read an essay that asks an interesting question but provides no definite answer, or an essay that asks a familiar question and gives a familiar but well-supported answer. I guarantee they’ll prefer the interesting question—and that their grades will reflect it.

4. Contextualize

The third Writemyessay rule of thumb for generating good ideas is to contextualize. That is, try to figure out how whatever you’re writing about—an event, text, experiment, finding or whatever—fits into your larger subject or field. If you’re looking at something your teacher has assigned or suggested, try to figure out why it got assigned in the first place. How does it fit into the course? What concepts, theories, or paradigms does it relate to? The refrain I try to drum into my students’ heads until they can repeat it in their sleep: “What is this an example of?” If you can give a solid answer to that question when you’re writing about something, you’re in good shape.

As practice, contextualize when you read textbooks: why this example, that story, that fact? And when you take notes, make sure not to get lost in a stream of facts; periodically step back to survey the big picture.

5. Record your notes and ideas

If you don’t keep track of what you’re thinking, you’ll forget most of it. It doesn’t matter how you record your thoughts as long as you develop a routine that works for you. Some people have complicated systems with color-coded notebooks or pens, some use tape recorders, some spend a lot of money on fancy tech products. At this point, though, a cheap composition book probably works better than a Palm Pilot. In any case, however you do it, record your thoughts or kiss them goodbye.

6. Ask

The thinking person’s secret weapon. Ask your friends, classmates, parents, librarians, and professors—above all, ask your teacher. Most students don’t like to ask questions because they see them as a mark of ignorance, and ignorance as something to hide. Here’s a better way to look at it: questions are a sign one is trying to learn. What true teacher wouldn’t welcome that? Especially when it’s a chance to share some of that hard-won and meagerly-rewarded learning?

And when you ask your teacher about a topic, assignment or argument, you get an answer straight from the horse’s mouth—what an assignment is really about, what the key ideas in a text are, whether you’re on the right track.

Mapping the argument

Once you have an idea, you need to think about how you’re going to present it. Whether you do an outline before or after you start writing, or whether you even do a traditional outline at all, doesn’t matter much, especially with short essays. What is important is that early on you step back and survey how you mean to articulate your whole argument—that you ask yourself exactly what your argument is and how it’s going to unfold step by step.

That is the key function of an outline, to remind you of where you’re going and why you’re taking each step. All but the briefest of essays require a written plan or map, to help you know when you’ re veering off track and to expose gaps, weaknesses, and other problems in the argument you wish to make.

Here’s an example of how a writer might use a map to sketch out and sharpen an argument (the writer is presumed to be doing research on the topic as she proceeds, of course). It’s rather schematic, suggesting some major steps as the writer goes from something she’s interested in to a more articulated argument.

First thoughtHmm, I want to learn about the Internet, and this is a business class—how about writing about Internet businesses?First-cut topic (after reading, discussion, thinking): the rapid growth of the Internet as a “new economy” (it turns out lots of people have thought about this—there’s a whole vocabulary I need to learn and use properly, and a bunch of articles and books I’m going to want to at least look at, depending on whether I want to make this short paper or my final project.)

Second cut (more reading, etc.): there are major debates among economists and business scholars about whether the Internet is a “new economy” with new rules of commerce, competition, and success that distinguish it from the “old economy,” or whether it’s simply the same old economic competition armed with new technology

Early thesis: The “old economy”/”new economy” dichotomy is an exaggeration

Second-cut thesis: Internet companies face the same constraints as other companies—they have to locate investment capital, hire workers, work with suppliers, compete with each other, cut costs, win customers, offer new products, etc. The Internet has not changed these fundamentals.

Near-final thesisInternet dot-coms like Amazon face the same basic challenges as other companies in core functions of organization, finance, R&D, logistics, marketing, and sales. The “new economy” is really the familiar “old economy” decked out in the latest technologies and buzzwords.


Where exactly should I start? I’m looking for a good quotation from a scholar or CEO about the new economy: either something that makes my point elegantly, or something I can set up to attack. . . . Or what about a historical comparison to another era of technological innovation? Hmm, go read an article or two on the early days of the car industry. . . .


The following numbered points aren’t necessarily a list of paragraphs, but a list of logical units. Each might be adequately dealt with in a single paragraph, or extend over several pages (or a whole chapter, in a book). What you don’t want is more than one logical unit per paragraph. . .

1. The short case for the “new economy” (I’ll set it up so I can argue against it). A couple of examples? A couple of scholars who advocate the “new economy” model. . . .

2. Limitations of the “new economy” model. A condensed version of the case against the “new economy”/”old economy” distinction.

3. Basic functions of businesses: (Here’s where I add detail and texture to #2; I got these categories from checking out my textbooks. For each of these I’m going to show how the old economy/new economy distinction doesn’t really hold.)

A. Organization

B. Finance

C. R&D

D. Logistics (here’s an area where the Internet really has had a major impact—but not just for dot-coms, so this will actually help my argument)

E. Marketing (ditto)

F. Sales

G. Service


Hmm, I want to come up with a juicy anecdote about how some dot-come went under, or realized it was no different from an old-line competitor, or something else that dramatizes my main point. Keep looking. . . .

Few students profit from outlines and other mapping tools as much as they might, for a couple of reasons. First, many students aren’t used to putting in the work to craft an outline; they’d rather get right to writing the essay. If that works for you, fine—and it is true that as word processing software becomes more sophisticated, it gets easier (in principle, at least) to embed outlines within essays.

A more important reason why many students fail to profit from outlines is that they’re used to thinking of outlines as glorified grocery lists rather than dynamic maps of an argument. After all, a good map isn’t simply a list of A and B, but a picture of the logical or spatial relationship between them—an action plan for how to get from A to B.

In terms of essays, what this means is that effective outlines or essay maps should clarify the argument’s flow and the connections between logical steps. Yet most student outlines end up with lots of nouns and few verbs, because they’ve been written as strings of topics rather than as an overview of the argument.

Composing a draft

The composition stage is when you can relax, oddly enough. You know what you want to say: Now just get it down on paper (or screen). Don’t worry about style, elegance, mechanics or anything else having to do with the essay’s final look. Just get it recorded. There’ll be plenty of time later on for revising and polishing this rough draft. The point now is to give yourself raw material that you can shape and sharpen.

There’s no trick in composition, as Thoreau says—unless you consider thorough preparation a trick, so that when you start writing you’ve already put quite a bit of work into developing and laying out a good argument.

A note on composing with a PC: Be fanatical about saving, backing up, and archiving your work. Save every five or ten minutes. If you’re working on a public terminal, keep a copy of your paper on another medium, for instance online—you can get 300 megs of free online storage at, among other free storage sites. Don’t trust floppies to keep your files for long, and absolutely neverstore all your work in just one place, even your own PC. (Have you heard the urban legend about the grad student who lost his whole doctoral dissertation—seven years in the making—when his laptop was stolen from his backpack?) If you don’t maintain an up-to-date archived copy, I guarantee that your hard drive, floppy, or Zip disk will explode just as you go to print out that precious paper.


All writing advice really boils down to three words: revise, revise, revise. Revision is what separates good from mediocre writing, and what turns good writing into great writing. Even the simplest, the clearest, the most natural seeming prose conceals beneath its surface hours of hard and painstaking revision.

Revision isn’t just about rearranging words—it’s about rethinking your whole argument, and making sure you’re really saying what you want to say. It’s a meticulous process of examining your work paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, even word by word. It starts with reading what you’ve written. If you’re lucky enough to have somebody else offer to read your draft, take them up on the offer—and make sure your reader knows that you want serious, honest reaction to your argument and how it unfolds.

There’s no single best way to revise. Some people like to get a complete draft in place before they start revising, and some like to work with smaller units of the essay. Lots of writers like to wrestle the whole argument into shape and only then turn to fine-tune editing and polishing of individual words and sentences. If that suits your style, great. In my case, I find it difficult to separate out big-picture editing from detailed reshaping of individual sentences. The only way I can really get into the guts of my argument is to scrutinize it sentence by sentence, so I find myself doing “big” and “little” editing at the same time.

The rest of this guide, especially the upcoming sections on Style and Structure, can help you learn to revise. The bottom line is simple: If you want to write, learn to revise. Francis Bacon’s comment that writing makes “an exact man” is true if we realize Bacon meant not only the first bloom of inspiration, but also the hard, necessary labor of revision.

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