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A Process Approach to Writing

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checkmark Paradigm Online Writing Assistant, a good general overview of writing.

What Is "THE Writing Process"?
Process-oriented writing instruction is based on research into how "real" or "real-world" writers compose texts, a process that differs from the typical student's process of writing for school. The student typically begins a paper late, working under deadline pressure, and produces one draft of the text, runs the spellchecker, prints, and turns in the paper. But in "real-world" writing, most writers producing texts for presentation and publication compose multiple drafts. They often engage as well in a variety of planning activities, solicit feedback, and follow a recursive pattern of drafting, raising questions that require returning to research, then revising in light of new information as needed. Process-based writing instruction attempts to duplicate this time-consuming approach to writing in the classroom. Typically, process instruction devotes some time to prewriting or invention activities (getting ideas, beginning to plan), drafting, seeking feedback from peers or the instructor, revising on the whole-text level (looking at the overall focus, reconsidering organization, deciding whether there is enough evidence, etc.), followed by revising at the paragraph or sentence level, proofreading, and "publishing" or printing the final text.

Why Use a Process Approach to Writing?
Instructors who incorporate some attention to process have the opportunity to intervene in students' writing process at any stage. Effective intervention results in better papers. Students who are asked or required to spend more time on a paper will think more about their topic, retain more information, and develop more powerful insights. Furthermore, students' writing skills need practice in order to develop. Most institutions require one to two first-year writing courses, but becoming a skilled writer takes more time and instruction than those ENG101 and ENG102 courses can deliver. Finally, we will enjoy reading students' papers if their quality is higher. We all know how depressing it is to read a batch of papers that make poor arguments, plagiarize, fail to follow acceptable formatting conventions, and otherwise violate our sense of what academic writing ought to look like. If we've looked at drafts and helped students think through their arguments more thoroughly, we will enjoy reading the final papers more.

But doesn't it take a lot of time to read multiple drafts of papers? Yes, but we need not comment on everything in each draft. If we spend some time helping students get started by talking through their topics and plans, the initial drafts will be better than the drafts written by students left entirely on their own. If we read drafts first for focus or thesis, organization, and proportion of evidence to claim, we can help students rethink the shape of their whole texts before focusing on sentence-level concerns. Then we should encourage them to spend as much time as they can and get as much help as they need in final proofreading before handing in the paper. The time invested in the process will decrease the time spent on commenting on final drafts, since many of our concerns about early drafts will have been addressed by student writers before we get to the grading.

How Can We Incorporate Process Instruction in Our Classes?

1. Ask students to do a lot of writing, but don't make every assignment count for a grade. If students are in the habit of responding to texts and information in writing, the formal paper is less daunting. Read some student texts as a "real" reader, responding to content without seeking to correct it.

2. Give students some class time to start brainstorming on a writing topic after you've given an assignment. As little as 5 minutes can be effective.

3. Encourage a variety of prewriting and planning strategies. Students sometimes need to do some writing before they know what their thesis will be. Some students work well from an outline, clustering, or creating a tree diagram. Others may benefit from generating a series of questions they have, or think their readers will have about their topic. Yet others benefit from visualizing a scenario in which they communicate the information (like a t.v. news report or speech in a courtroom). Others can visualize by drawing scenes. See our Online Writing Manual for more information.

4. Assign students to peer groups to give each other focused feedback on drafts. Prepare some guidelines for peer responders, so that they can look for specific textual features, and ask them to provide written feedback to the student authors. Peer group sessions can be held in class, face-to-face out of class, or in a computer environment (email, bulletin board, BC-MOO, etc.).

5. Encourage students to ask you questions about their writing, as they are working on papers.

6. Practice formative assessment.

7. If at all possible, schedule brief face-to-face conferences for discussion of student writing. Consider framing your comments in terms of questions, like, "What do you mean here?" or, "Can you tell me more about this?" rather than in evaluative statements.

8. When students produce multiple drafts of an essay, you can hold them to very rigorous standards for the final product.

9. Weight end-of-semester revisions and writing more heavily than early writing when you determine the final grade.

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By A. L. Trupe July 19, 2001