The Writing Process

By Ali Hale

the writing processWhether you know it or not, there’s a process to writing – which many writers follow naturally. If you’re just getting started as a writer, though, or if you always find it a struggle to produce an essay, short story or blog, following the writing process will help.

I’m going to explain what each stage of the writing process involves, and I’ll offer some tips for each section that will help out if you’re still feeling stuck!

1. Prewriting

Have you ever sat staring at a blank piece of paper or a blank document on your computer screen? You might have skipped the vital first stage of the writing process: prewriting. This covers everything you do before starting your rough draft. As a minimum, prewriting means coming up with an idea!

Ideas and Inspiration

Ideas are all around you. If you want to write but you don’t have any ideas, try:

  • Using a writing prompt to get you started.
  • Writing about incidents from your daily life, or childhood.
  • Keeping a notebook of ideas – jotting down those thoughts that occur throughout the day.
  • Creating a vivid character, and then writing about him/her.

See also How to Generate Hundreds of Writing Ideas.

Tip: Once you have an idea, you need to expand on it. Don’t make the mistake of jumping straight into your writing – you’ll end up with a badly structured piece.

Building on Your Idea

These are a couple of popular methods you can use to add flesh to the bones of your idea:

  • Free writing: Open a new document or start a new page, and write everything that comes into your head about your chosen topic. Don’t stop to edit, even if you make mistakes.
  • Brainstorming: Write the idea or topic in the center of your page. Jot down ideas that arise from it – sub-topics or directions you could take with the article.

Once you’ve done one or both of these, you need to select what’s going into your first draft.

Planning and Structure

Some pieces of writing will require more planning than others. Typically, longer pieces and academic papers need a lot of thought at this stage.

First, decide which ideas you’ll use. During your free writing and brainstorming, you’ll have come up with lots of thoughts. Some belong in this piece of writing: others can be kept for another time.

Then, decide how to order those ideas. Try to have a logical progression. Sometimes, your topic will make this easy: in this article, for instance, it made sense to take each step of the writing process in order. For a short story, try the eight-point story arc.

2. Writing

Sit down with your plan beside you, and start your first draft (also known as the rough draft or rough copy). At this stage, don’t think about word-count, grammar, spelling and punctuation. Don’t worry if you’ve gone off-topic, or if some sections of your plan don’t fit too well. Just keep writing!

If you’re a new writer, you might be surprised that professional authors go through multiple drafts before they’re happy with their work. This is a normal part of the writing process – no-one gets it right first time.

Some things that many writers find helpful when working on the first draft include:

  • Setting aside at least thirty minutes to concentrate: it’s hard to establish a writing flow if you’re just snatching a few minutes here and there.
  • Going somewhere without interruptions: a library or coffee shop can work well, if you don’t have anywhere quiet to write at home.
  • Switching off distracting programs: if you write your first draft onto a computer, you might find that turning off your Internet connection does wonders for your concentration levels! When I’m writing fiction, I like to use the free program Dark Room (you can find more about it on our collection of writing software).

You might write several drafts, especially if you’re working on fiction. Your subsequent drafts will probably merge elements of the writing stage and the revising stage.

Tip: Writing requires concentration and energy. If you’re a new writer, don’t try to write for hours without stopping. Instead, give yourself a time limit (like thirty minutes) to really focus – without checking your email!

3. Revising

Revising your work is about making “big picture” changes. You might remove whole sections, rewrite entire paragraphs, and add in information which you’ve realized the reader will need. Everyone needs to revise – even talented writers.

The revision stage is sometimes summed up with the A.R.R.R. (Adding, Rearranging, Removing, Replacing) approach:

Adding

What else does the reader need to know? If you haven’t met the required word-count, what areas could you expand on? This is a good point to go back to your prewriting notes – look for ideas which you didn’t use.

Rearranging

Even when you’ve planned your piece, sections may need rearranging. Perhaps as you wrote your essay, you found that the argument would flow better if you reordered your paragraphs. Maybe you’ve written a short story that drags in the middle but packs in too much at the end.

Removing

Sometimes, one of your ideas doesn’t work out. Perhaps you’ve gone over the word count, and you need to take out a few paragraphs. Maybe that funny story doesn’t really fit with the rest of your article.

Replacing

Would more vivid details help bring your piece to life? Do you need to look for stronger examples and quotations to support your argument? If a particular paragraph isn’t working, try rewriting it.

Tip: If you’re not sure what’s working and what isn’t, show your writing to someone else. This might be a writers’ circle, or just a friend who’s good with words. Ask them for feedback. It’s best if you can show your work to several people, so that you can get more than one opinion.

4. Editing

The editing stage is distinct from revision, and needs to be done after revising. Editing involves the close-up view of individual sentences and words. It needs to be done after you’ve made revisions on a big scale: or else you could agonize over a perfect sentence, only to end up cutting that whole paragraph from your piece.

When editing, go through your piece line by line, and make sure that each sentence, phrase and word is as strong as possible. Some things to check for are:

  • Have you used the same word too many times in one sentence or paragraph? Use a thesaurus to find alternatives.
  • Are any of your sentences hard to understand? Rewrite them to make your thoughts clear.
  • Which words could you cut to make a sentence stronger? Words like “just” “quite”, “very”, “really” and “generally” can often be removed.
  • Are your sentences grammatically correct? Keep a careful look out for problems like subject-verb agreement and staying consistent in your use of the past, present or future tense.
  • Is everything spelt correctly? Don’t trust your spell-checker – it won’t pick up every mistake. Proofread as many times as necessary.
  • Have you used punctuation marks correctly? Commas often cause difficulties. You might want to check out the Daily Writing Tips articles on punctuation.

Tip: Print out your work and edit on paper. Many writers find it easier to spot mistakes this way.

5. Publishing

The final step of the writing process is publishing. This means different things depending on the piece you’re working on.

Bloggers need to upload, format and post their piece of completed work.

Students need to produce a final copy of their work, in the correct format. This often means adding a bibliography, ensuring that citations are correct, and adding details such as your student reference number.

Journalists need to submit their piece (usually called “copy”) to an editor. Again, there will be a certain format for this.

Fiction writers may be sending their story to a magazine or competition. Check guidelines carefully, and make sure you follow them. If you’ve written a novel, look for an agent who represents your genre. (There are books like Writer’s Market, published each year, which can help you with this.)

Tip: Your piece of writing might never be published. That’s okay – many bestselling authors wrote lots of stories or articles before they got their first piece published. Nothing that you write is wasted, because it all contributes to your growth as a writer.

Conclusion

The five stages of the writing process are a framework for writing well and easily. You might want to bookmark this post so that you can come back to it each time you start on a new article, blog post, essay or story: use it as a checklist to help you.

If you have any tips about the writing process, or if you want to share your experiences, tell us in the comments!

Check Out Other Articles from The “Writing 101” Series:

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46 Responses to “The Writing Process”

  • Rogen Garcia

    Thank you for this concise article, it is very helpful to me. I’ve read lots of other articles and other guides available on the internet but not as concise as this. Being a blogger, I always tend to jump into writing when an idea pops in my mind which was, I know, very wrong because the output was always not as satisfying as I wanted it to be. Turns out I need to invest a lot of time on prewriting.

    Thank you!

  • Art

    Being artistic minded, liking the visual side of life, I have discovered that for me, a large piece of paper taped to the wall, or board, and a large variety of colored markers in one hand, my idea firmly in mind, more markers in the other hand, and developing the progression of that idea down a horizontal timeline with the use of notes and arrows, lines, bars, and other miscellaneous drawings, really helps with that very first stage, prewriting.

    Great post!

    I am loving the tips I am learning from your site.

    Thank you!

  • Winchester Summers

    Thank you for the informative, direct and clear article.

    I don’t personally consider myself a writer even though I have written two books over a four year period but sometimes I do stress myself out with those little questions. Where is this going? Is it fluid? Does that line work? By reading this I have a much stronger understanding of what not to do and vice versa.

    It’s nice to read an articulate piece that wasn’t too technical and as put my mind at ease. It’s made me realise I do not need to rush what I am writing and given me some great tips for the future.

    Thank you!

  • HERE

    The article was very catching to me as it gives certain tips for writing an article in English. This has made for the person like me the task of writing very simple and very much interesting. It gives us more freedom of thought and relief from tension and stress.

  • Anna

    Hi – the tip about proof reading from the bottom of your document up is a great idea. When you are working on a document, it’s easy to slip out of proof reading mode and slip into re-writing and revising, and this sounds like a good way of avoiding that. Looking forward to trying it out.

  • Skye C.

    These tips are always so encouraging. As a beginning writer, I get really nervous about the entire writing process, and especially about the publishing step. I get very nervous about sending a transcript into a publishing company.
    I also have a difficult time finishing first drafts? Do you have any suggestions for that?

  • sudilah

    This is very important for EFL teachers who want to help the students develop their ability in writing. I have tried this with my students and it works well. Now I wonder if I could try this writing process with students of the long distance learning program.

  • Phil South

    Brilliant post!

    It’s nice to see a clear and concise breakdown of the writing process, and I will be sure to borrow it (with suitable attribution of course) for my students.

    I can’t take issue with any step, apart from to say that in my experience free writing is an activity best done under the threat of a timer. Incidentally freewriting was created by Peter Elbow in “Writing Without Teachers” in 1975 and further popularized by Julia Cameron in her book “The Artist’s Way” in 1992.

    In any case my friend and colleague Nick Daws is an advocate of the technique, but recommends doing it in 10 minute bursts. This is similar to the Pomodoro technique using a cooks timer. I find this works wonders with the majority of students who find it hard to “get on” with their first draft and six treatments a day represents a solid hour of continuous writing.

    On the question of Planning and Structure I love your example of the eight-point story arc, but of course there are almost as many theories about structure as their are teachers to talk about them. I like Joseph Cambell’s Hero’s Journey and variations on that notably Chris Vogler and Phil Cousineau. My favourite technique is to read 20-30 books in my chosen genre and analyse them for content, either by reading and making notes or forensic beat sheet analysis as in Roz Morris’ excellent “Nail Your Novel”.

    The key thing is to Get the First Draft Done. After that it all seems MUCH easier.

    best regards

    Phil South
    Creative Genius Programme

  • Esther

    I’m going to be a little critical, but I don’t wish to be rude. I teach seventh grade English, and the steps in the writing process are one of the key points I teach. However, I reverse steps 3 and 4 when I teach it to my middle schoolers. You may wonder why that is.

    Most middle school students (and some adults) cannot see their own errors–even in terms of unnecessary info that needs removed–until someone else edits their work for them. Whoever invented “The Writing Process” was a genius, breaking it into pieces that all writers can understand and follow, but I truly think most writers would benefit by having their paper edited before doing a thorough revision–myself included.

    As a hobby, I also write YA books, and I do very few revisions before I have my beta readers edit for me. Once it has been thoroughly edited, proofread, and critiqued, THEN I revise.

    Recently my agent sent me some of her edits and asked me to revise my manuscript one more time. How silly would it be, if I replied with, “No, dear agent, revise comes BEFORE edit…”?

    I only wish I could convince the rest of the English teachers that the steps are out of order, because young teens don’t self-edit very well at all. When asked to self-edit (or as you would call it, revise the first draft), they often turn to me and say, “But I LIKE the way my story sounds. Nothing needs changed.”

    One other side note–and again, I don’t mean to sound rude, only helpful–you’ve misspelled “spelled” in#4 “Editing”. As I’m sure you now realize, “spelt” is a kind of flour made from a wheat-like grain.

  • Aaron Roark

    I am currently working on a fantasy novel. As this is a collaboration, and I am only writing certain characters and parts of the story line, I thought that some parts of the process were already done when I started. Then I realized that I can still use the whole process for the parts I write. (d’oh!)
    I’ll send a link to this post to my partner!

  • elsa anderson

    Organization plays an essential role in drafting an essay. Well organized writing has the purpose of guiding your reader toward understanding the story. The way an essay is organized affects not only the readers to understand the story; it also facilitates the writing and helps the writer what he/she trying to convey. The story should be more focused on the main title which that helps the readers to grasp the idea and also helps the readers not to be confused. If the story is not well organized and out of focus, it could became tedious that readers could lose interest easily. If the writing is focus on the main idea and easily understood, it could be more persuasive and draws a lot’s of attention.
    It is very useful to write multiple drafts. It helps the author to enhance his/her writing ability. After you complete your first draft you might get a chance how to approach your story differently. It gives you a chance to reconsider your prevous thought by writing different version on some of your paragraphs than what you original wrote.

  • wangwang

    1). More and more people like to have a mixed marriage with the development of information and technology. Everywhere has many foreigners who are lived on there. There are many problems
    (2) First, their culture is also not same. When they live with each other, they must think of how to respect another’s’ culture, for example, courtesy, custom and religious belief and so on. On the other hand, their language is different. And there are some thoughts form their parents. The people who want to have a mixed marriage have to think of this problem. It is needed to take into account how to get along well with each other after marriage.
    (3). In a word, A mixed marriage also needs love. They should think of love between theirs to solve these problems.

  • drea

    shouldnt the conclusionbe the final dreaft? whats the process? standered:expository writing.

  • Lexii

    Shouldn’t the Conclusion be the Final Draft ?

  • Adrian Domocos

    This are the steps of “The Writing Process” indeed!

    In the first 2 steps (Prewriting and Writing) we (Shelfster.com) can help you with a platform and new tools for desktop, mobile and web.

    You just have to make a free account and start using the one is better for you.

  • Kori

    Im writinq a bioqraqhy book.I’ve been throuqh a lot nd i feel that now is the time 4me to chanqe my act.Im 15yrs old nd i would love to be a author nd to b successful.I hope my book is qreat to the point where ppl will by it nd stop judqinq me when they see thinqs from what really happen.I feel God has qiven me a qift to write.I use to wuna b a sinqer nd a sonq writer bt i qrew out of it.I jus fel that writinq is what im qood at.Its always been somethinq im qood at so hopefully i will be successful nd make so methinq.I can actually b a author if i set my mind to b one. (:

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