Like a lot of graduate students, I write regularly. Whether it’s a discussion post, a research paper, or even a blog entry like this one, I’m usually writing something in one form or another every day. Today then, I’d like to tell you about my writing processes. I say processes because I go about my assignments differently.
For shorter or more informal pieces like this one, I usually get straight to the draft. For blog posts, I’ll often write a short sentence summarizing each of the paragraphs I want to include, and then go back and flesh them out. If it’s an image-heavy post, I’ll insert my pictures first, and organize my paragraphs around them. There’s definitely preplanning in terms of figuring out the general layout, but aside from having a rough narrative in mind, I typically jump into the draft itself.
Research papers, by contrast, are an entirely different animal. I usually start with some freeform writing, where I list ideas, phrases, thought bubbles or anything that I think could be pertinent to the essay. I then take these ideas and organize them into a preliminary outline. This isn’t the final one I’ll use, but it gets my argument into order.
Once I have the basic structure down, I then create what I call my full outline. This is where I plot out every section, every paragraph, and every citation. I include my sources, page numbers, and direct quotations, even if I don’t intend to use them, so that I have everything in one place. With this outline, it’s my goal to have everything in one document so that I’m not scrambling for quotes or sources down the line. I still usually do end up looking up at least a few sources later on, but putting them in an outline ahead of time significantly cuts down on how much time I spend doing that.
Once I have this outline, I then write the draft. Depending on the essay length, I’ll try to get the full draft in one session, though I have experimented with dividing them up as well. If I’m having a focused morning session, I can usually write a 20-25 paper draft in about four hours.
All of this, however, is just the setup for what I consider the heart of my writing process: rewriting. I once had a professor tell me that the key to good writing was good editing, and I take that advice very seriously. I write my drafts knowing that I’ll never get it right the first time, and that I will need to rework and massage it multiple times. Over the course of my editing process, I probably end up rewriting a work several times, and the first draft ends up bearing little resemblance to the finished piece. Yet for me, this part is the most fun. You get to see how many ways you can say something, and then decide which one works best for you.
Even my blog posts and discussion posts get edited in one form or another. If you’re reading any of my posts, they’ve probably gone through at least one round of revising. Not to the extent of formal essays, but they’re still edited.
And what about those pesky typos? After all, with so much editing, you’re bound to hit a few wrong keys, and I most certainly do. I started using Grammarly last year, which helps me catch a lot of those mistakes. I don’t rely exclusively on software though, so for all my academic work, I make sure to read the final draft out loud at least once, if not more. Another professor of mine suggested this to all her undergraduate students, and I’ve never found a better way to test the flow of my writing and catch stray grammatical errors.
I personally consider my writing workmanlike. I treat writing like a job that you work consistently (albeit a more fun and creative one, if I’m in the right mood), and for academic writing in particular, I try to work in the morning when I’m most focused. Given my propensity for rewriting, it’s easy to get sucked into editing forever, but that’s why deadlines are so important for me. If I have a cutoff date, I can keep myself from getting trapped in an endless editing cycle.
So that’s my writing process. The thing about graduate school, however, is that no two students work the same, so everyone approaches writing differently. My process isn’t necessarily right for everyone, and indeed some would probably find it stifling. It works for me though, and that’s what matters.