Learning to write – from start to finish


in TOEFL, Tools & Techniques

Most people would not take a trip without knowing where they’re going and how to get there. Unfortunately, many writers do it all the time. If you want to become a good writer, you need a good plan, or process – like the one I describe in this article.

The writing process used by most good writers includes four simple, but essential, steps that can be summarized like this:

Think about it.
Write it down.
Improve it.
Correct it.

Let’s look at each step individually.

Think about it (pre-writing or planning)

No successful trip begins without a clear idea of where you’re going. Good writers always pause to think before they write.

Every writing situation is different, even those that seem to be the same, like TOEFL essays. The best way for you to discover the differences is by asking – and answering – questions about the writing situation:

  • What kind of writing am I going to do – an essay, article, research paper, or something else?
  • What, specifically am I going to write about – what is my subject?
  • Why am I writing – to inform, convince, tell a story, or some combination of these?
  • Who will read what I write? What do they know about my subject? How will they benefit from it?
  • What information do I need to include, and where will I find it?

Your answer to these questions should guide the rest of the writing process. Use them to make a tentative, or preliminary, plan – to think of ideas, write them down, and organize them.

Good writers always plan before they write. However, they know that their plans will probably change as they write. And they’re willing to change their plan when they get new ideas.

Write it down (drafting)

When you start to write, remember that writing is like pottery-making – you first create the general shape of your work and then refine, or improve, it.

Put your ideas down – on paper or on your computer – and organize them the best you can. Work quickly until you’ve finished. Stop from time to time to reread what you’ve written – to see where you’ve come from and where you’re going – but don’t spend a lot of time “fixing” things.

Remember, your first draft is tentative. It’s your first attempt to create the general shape of your essay, paper, or article. Improving it and correcting it come later.

Improve it (revising)

Revising – improving by rereading and making changes – is the heart of the writing process. When you revise, focus on your ideas. Make sure they’re all there, that they’re in the right order, or sequence, and that they work together to do what you planned to do when you began.

Make sure each paragraph introduces and clearly develops one idea. And make sure that the ideas move logically – step by step – from one paragraph to the next. If necessary, move paragraphs around. Combine some of them. Or write new paragraphs to fill in the gaps where ideas are missing.

Correct it (editing)

Editing is making sure that everything is correct – words, spelling, sentence structure, punctuation. Good writers wait to edit until the end of the writing process. They worry about formal correctness only after they are satisfied with their ideas.

The process – in the words of a writer

I like the way William Zinsser – writer, editor, and former writing teacher at Yale University – describes the writing process. He combines some of the steps, but his thinking – the most important part – is the kind of thinking you must do if you want to become a good writer:

Think! Ask yourself, “What do I want to say?” then try to say it. Then ask yourself, “Have I said it?” Put yourself in the reader’s mind. Is your sentence absolutely clear to someone who knows nothing about the subject? If not, think about how to make it clear. Then rewrite it. Then think: “What do I need to say next? Will it lead logically out of what I’ve just written? Will it also lead logically toward where I want to go?” If it will, write the sentence. Then ask yourself, “Did it do the job I wanted it to do with no ambiguity (clearly)?” If it did, think: “Now what does the reader need to know?” Keep thinking and writing and rewriting. If you force yourself to think clearly you will write clearly. It’s as simple as that. The hard part isn’t the writing; the hard part is the thinking.

Two suggestions for better writing

Dr. Stephen Krashen reminds of us of two other characteristics of good writers and writing. First, he says that good writers take short breaks to encourage “incubation,” an important aspect of creativity. Incubation takes place when we quit writing for a while and do something else. Our brains continue to work subconsciously, and new ideas often emerge when we return to what we were doing.

Krashen also points out that writers produce more good writing and better ideas when they write regularly – such as daily – for shorter amounts of time. It would be better, for example, to break a large writing project into short daily sections than trying to write it all at one time.

A writer’s helper

A good writer’s handbook is one of the best investments you can make. I recommend A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker. It’s easier to use and has better information than the other handbooks I’ve looked at.

Be sure you buy the latest edition. I have the 6th edition, and the 7th edition is supposed to be available in October 2010. Get the version with the plastic comb binding; it will stay open better when you lay the book on your desk or table.

Warren Ediger

Previous: Learning to write – in English

References: Diana Hacker. A Writer’s Reference, 6th edition; Stepehn Krashen and Sy-Ying Lee. Competence in foreign language writing: progress and lacunae; William Zinsser. Writing to Learn.

Photo used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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Sanaz September 15, 2010

Dear Warren,
Many thanks for your useful information. For me, because of the time limiting, I actually don’t have enough time to do the two last steps, revising and editing. Beforehand, I even didn’t have ability to organize my thoughts and provide good ideas. But, now I think it’s easier for me to think and organize my reflections due to your strategy of reading and listening. Actually, I should confess that writing essays was the hardest task in the whole world for me to do and it’s better to say that the most unpleasant one. If I had had time, I would have postponed writing as much as I could…. But now, fortunately, I don’t feel like the past anymore and on the contrary I like to write and it’s pleasant for me. I have a strong desire to become a good writer and I like learn more and more….

Warren Ediger September 15, 2010

Sanaz – Thank you. One of the benefits of this process – in addition to better writing – is that it can also save time. It allows you to focus your attention on what’s important at the moment and move more quickly through each phase of the writing process. And now that we do most of our writing on computers – and can revises and edit easily – there’s really no excuse to not use a process like this. I would even use it – perhaps combining the revising/editing steps – on a TOEFL essay.

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