Michael Phillips, Consultant
Rewind about two months. Your professor has distributed the syllabus, and you notice that the culminating writing project in the course is a long one, we’ll say 8-10 pages. But it’s not due until December, so you may approach it in an out-of-sight-out-of-mind way. That kind of thinking may have been appropriate or even necessary then, but as we approach November, you probably need to start thinking about this assignment.
As unlikely as it may seem, we’re at a pretty critical stage of the semester. Midterms have passed, and finals aren’t for about another month. A lot can happen in that month, and if you have a couple large writing assignments due around that time like I do, a lot should happen. What I want to illustrate in this post is how I approach larger writing assignments and the writing process I employ to complete those assignments. I understand everyone has their own way of jumping into writing projects and their own writing processes. However, I feel it’s a helpful practice to engage with and think about how others tackle these kinds of projects.
Prewriting or searching for an interest
Sometimes in these longer projects, your professor may provide a very specific, narrowed prompt for you to explore. Often, though, the prompt will be open-ended and up to you to decide what to write about. When I find out about a longer assignment toward the beginning of the semester, I personally take a mental note to keep a look out for subjects in the class that resonate with me, regardless of the specificity of the prompt. I register this mental note in order to approach the assignment with a subject that I know I can commit time to. I’ve found when I have no attachment or personal connection to a topic, my writing suffers because I’m demotivated to think about it critically. My writing isn’t the only thing to hurt in this kind of instance: my grade on the assignment is resultantly lower. So, throughout the first part of the semester, I try to engage with the material in the course that piques my academic interest.
Discovering a general topic
Usually, I try to find several topics that interest me in the first couple of months in a course. I attempt to find as many as possible for two reasons: to make connections between them and to give myself as many options potentially to write about. I make notes throughout the semester about which class discussions and which readings are most interesting to me, and from there I catalog questions I can consider answering in the writing assignment. To give a concrete example, as an undergraduate student I took a senior level Philosophy of Aesthetics course. I was an English major, and this kind of course was both out of my field of study and my comfort zone. However, throughout the semester, I found the philosophy of Immanuel Kant on art to be interesting. Additionally, in that same semester I came to appreciate the film Drive. Resultantly, I connected the two and completed an admittedly compelling body of writing. So this example fits in the context of my thinking about writing. Continuing, once I’ve found a general topic or connection of topics in an academic or social issue, I turn to the next step of the process.
Researching and understanding relevant scholarship
At this point, which typically happens for me about a month before the assignment is due, I’m feeling pretty good. I very loosely understand what I want to write about, and now it’s time for me to acquaint myself with the scholarship already out there. The reason I approach this research portion of the process at this time is because I’m not too familiar with my topic yet, and my objective for the assignment is still malleable and subject to change. Research at this stage is really important to me: my original line of thinking about the topic will either be strengthened or challenged, which I realize are both potential and necessary outcomes. If I find in this stage that my loose topical interest has either been too thoroughly researched or, conversely, totally neglected in scholarship, I then consider refining the subject I want to write about. Usually, though, my topic after becoming acquainted with scholarship in the area is bolstered and ready for execution.
Getting my ideas out a.k.a. the rough draft
This stage might be the hardest for me. I frequently find myself too critical of the execution of my ideas in writing, and as a result the process is slowed tremendously. To combat this grueling self-criticism, I remind myself that the first and roughest draft can be changed entirely before the submission of the final draft. In getting my ideas out, I like to draft a loose outline to provide some semblance of a framework for the assignment. This practice allows me integrate relevant scholarship into my draft, and it also relieves some of the stress of finding a template off which I can direct my ideas. I understand how confining the outline can be, but I personally see its value in helping me organize my ideas to flow in the form of a draft. Once my outline is in a position I’m comfortable with, I transport my ideas into the draft.
Proofreading, revision, and the final draft
With arguably the most difficult part of my process complete, the revision stage is a time for polishing and coming to terms with the submission. Here, I’ll suggest some strategies I employ to engage with creating my final draft. First and most importantly, I read my writing aloud. Like Melissa alluded to in last week’s post, speech in writing is hugely important for me. Not only do I literally write out loud at times, I also find revising out loud to be integral to my writing. Reading what I’ve written allows me to hear how my ideas are expressed, further affording me the positions as both writer and reader. I’ll go ahead and plug the Writing Center here. The Writing Center, though effective for the writer at any stage of the process, is especially beneficial at this part since it offers an external and honest peer-evaluation of the delivery of your ideas. If something didn’t sound right, or if something could potentially be stated more clearly, the consultants there relish the opportunity to let you know. Politely, I’ll add. When I’ve completed these steps regarding the final drafting stage, I usually feel comfortable enough to boldly and confidently submit it. It’s time to move on and forget. Right?
Postwriting and its applications
Though it’s indeed time to move on to other pressing assignments, it’s certainly not time to forget. At this stage, I’m glad I’ve submitted the project, but I look for ways to think about what went right in this particular process and what could be improved. I ask myself necessary questions at this stage: did I wait too long or not long enough in formulating my topic? Was my use of scholarship compelling? Did I give myself enough time to execute my ideas effectively in the drafting stage? These are just a few examples of the questions I ask myself in order to improve my writing for the next time I write.
I’ve found this process to be particularly helpful in my writing. I hope you, too, can find similar success without the headache of waiting until the last minute!