We all have different methods for producing writing. I use the word “producing” because writing involves many tasks, roles, phases, and, arguably, people. I used to consider my writing to be a solitary endeavor. I would torture myself trying to find inspiration and, after finding it, obsess over producing something “good”. I had this vision of the genius writer, alone in a dark study laboring away until the piece of writing is finished and handed over to the world as a golden nugget of truth. Here I will hazard to say that for most writers, the writing process is nothing like this. The majority of us thrive on feedback, to shape our work and to allow it to reach its highest potential. I’ve found this to be true for myself, for the clients I work with at the writing center, and for fellow graduate students and teachers. While we all have various approaches to the writing process itself, the one constant I’ve found is this: writing is a social act.
Most of us start with a brainstorming or prewriting phase, in which we take on a creative role and generate ideas. My prewriting phase can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and involves many conversations with friends, professors, fellow students and writing center consultants. Usually it begins with, “Is this idea crazy?” and I’m consistently amazed when I’m told that it’s not. I find that many of my clients at the writing center similarly question the validity of their ideas. We need people around us to engage with our thoughts and give us their input. Sometimes, we simply need people to listen while we voice a new idea for the first time to see how it sounds. Occasionally, after a session at the writing center, I realize that most of what I’ve done is listen. Yet these sessions are very valuable, because the writer can actually see the imaginary reader who is always present as we write. By actually speaking to our reader, we can learn immensely about the way our ideas are received.
For some, the next phase of the writing process is some sort of outlining or note-taking. This is when a writer decides which moves to make in a piece of writing. Generally, for me, this is the phase when I like to mark up my books and scribble furiously as my ideas take form on the page. Others are more methodical and organized. I have one client who uses a complicated color coding system to organize her notes. On the other side of the spectrum, a fellow consultant of mine free-writes to allow her ideas to progress, a process she jokingly calls “word vomit”. This can be very useful because it allows the writer to think on paper without concerns over organization or style. In any case, involving another person in this planning phase can really help a writer prevent major revisions later.
Finally, there is the drafting, revising, and editing of a paper. These acts seem to exist on a continuum at the end of the writing process. After all, many of us edit and revise as we write and, likewise, add new material during revision and editing. What makes drafting, revising, and editing inherently social is the basic fact that no one can completely intuit how their writing will be received. I might think that something I’ve written makes perfect sense, but my reader’s furrowed brow tells me a different story. This is why every piece of writing that I’m proud of has gone through at least one rough draft that I’ve revised after receiving feedback. Similarly, my clients at the writing center report significant improvement in their grades and in their own perceptions of their writing after bringing a draft to the writing center. Whether the person reading through a draft is a writing center consultant, a professor, or a friend, the feedback seems to greatly improve the clarity and often the persuasiveness of a piece of writing.
The bottom line is that without the response of a reader, writers are at the mercy of their own imaginations. While some experienced writers may be very good at intuiting their invisible audience, no one can claim total clairvoyance. At the root of the writing process is something deeply collaborative because, ultimately, we write to communicate. I’ve found in my experience as a consultant at the writing center—and as a writer myself—that the only real cure for writer’s block is simply to find another human being.