The Writing Process
This splendid diagram is taken from Coffin, Caroline, et al. Teaching Academic Writing: A Toolkit for Higher Education.
Writing is an iterative game. It isn’t a linear process. As you can see in the diagram above, it’s necessary to revisit different parts of the process in order to plan, research, generate text, draft, refine ideas, do more research, redraft and polish (and the same goes for any kind of writing).
Looking at this pictorial representation it would seem that, were it not for deadlines, perfectionists would have no hope of ever finishing a piece of writing.
You might think that you aren’t a perfectionist. Well, maybe not, but you’ve got the fear. If you were super confident or didn’t care, you wouldn’t be reading this. Even if it’s buried deep, you know you’re going to be judged, marked (terrible word), given a grade. You hear friends on your course telling how they wrote that first-class essay the night before it was due. Maybe they did, but they still engaged in the process in some way or another. Either that or they’re being economical with the truth.
Personally, I could never do the night-before thing. I would have been debilitated and distracted by the dreadful pressure and noise of a clock ticking loudly. So I slogged it out over an extended period and nodded politely at my smug super-human peers.
It took me weeks to write those first-class essays, and at least the same amount of time to write the bad ones. Now – looking down from my ivory tower, dressed like a character from Hogwarts – I can see all the unnecessary pain and anguish that I subjected myself to until I started to be methodical, before I began to work at finding the version of this process that worked best for me. It was still hard work – and it should be – but it quickly became far more creative, effective and rewarding.
If you’re reading this, it means that you’re not sure if you’ve found the best way for you to go about writing an academic essay. It might be that your approach just needs a tweak. You might read this guide and think: ‘nah, I prefer the way I do it.’ I’ll be happy either way, because you will have examined your methods and you will be thinking about process.
One final thing before we move on. Remember the diagram and don’t fall in love with anything that you have written. Be willing to cut, revise and reorganise every aspect of your draft. By the end of this blog series, you shouldn’t have to – but, for the moment, at least be willing to consider it.
PREPARING TO WRITE
So you’ve got the question list from your tutor. It’s been in your bag for a couple of weeks, mocking you every time you’ve been digging around trying to find a pen. You’ve checked your diary. The deadline is still far enough away to allow some pleasant procrastination, but you’ve got three hundred parties to go to between now and then so maybe you should get started. It’s raining outside and there’s nothing else to do for half an hour. What harm would there be in taking a peek? Just a quick look.
Not good. The fear is beginning to rise. These are hard questions, really hard. They have multiple parts and were clearly written by a sadist on mind-bending drugs. The topics seem to have been lifted from another course, possibly another degree subject, and maybe another dimension in time and space.
Time to panic. It’s too late: you’ve seen it now, and some things can never be unseen. You need to take action: any action, or you won’t have a moment’s peace from the crushing guilt. You’ll hear that parental voice nagging away in your head. You’re in deep now and it’s going to be horrible.
So why not get it over with? Why not start the process? Instead of sprinting like a maniac pursued by wolves towards the deadline, why not meander gently? Stop and stare, smell the flowers and – I know, it’s a shocking suggestion – read around your subject in an enjoyable manner.
In the next post, we’ll look at selecting essay questions and the ‘next actions’ technique.