What Writers Do
Our writing courses focus on academic
writing from sources: students write the kind of texts they will most likely
encounter in college—essays, critical analyses, problem-solving, research
papers. We stress argumentation, starting with opinion pieces and working
toward the use of sources to support a well-considered point of view. We
consider writing as the set of processes writers use to get from here to there.
These processes are messy, not neat. Since students think and speak in whole
texts, we engage them directly in writing full-fledged essays right from the
We also recognize
- that writing is contextual: what works for one
writing task may not work for another; fluency in one kind of writing may
not guarantee success in another;
- that while our students do multiple drafts of
some essays, planning and incubation are often luxuries that writers who
are facing real-life deadlines cannot afford;
- that writing improvement is not linear; writers
develop through practice and variety, through trying new and more
difficult things; writers improve even though their texts may not;
- that while published writing may be useful as a
model for student writers, such finished writing masks the messy and
complicated stages of its production; formal writing has been revised and
polished not just by the author(s) but by a series of editors, referees,
and proofreaders, to the point where the published product may be
significantly different from the writer’s final draft;
- and finally, that while we ground our
methodology in a theory that sees writing as contextual and socially
constructed, there are no sure-fire methods of instruction that follow
from this, and in the end we all do the best we can.
Here are some things writers must consider
when they are given writing tasks by instructors or employers, or when they
decide to write on their own:
- Goals. Why am I writing this?
Writers need to determine the purpose of the writing task: is it a test of
their knowledge or a request for information? Are they being asked to sell
an idea or product, to try to change someone’s mind, or get someone to do
something? What are the goals of the person who assigned the task? What
are the goals of the reader?
- Topic. Does the topic need to be narrowed or focused in order to make
Sometimes writers rephrase assignments to take control over them, to make
them their own. Other times, they must accept and follow the wording of
- Audience. Who is my audience? What do they know already? What do they
need to know? What do I want them to know (and what do I want to hide)?
What do I want them to feel or do after they’ve read what I write?
Writers must try to guess when they are telling their readers too much or
too little. They must anticipate audience response and forestall any
objections their readers might raise.
- Finding and evaluating sources. What do I already know about the topic, and
what do I need to find out to complete my writing task successfully?
Writers have to find information, whether that means doing library
research, gathering data, or conducting interviews. They must evaluate the
information they collect, selecting what’s important, valid,
authoritative, and appropriate, filing the rest for future use, or
discarding it as dated or invalid.
- Incorporating sources. How can I use sources effectively?
Writers decide how to incorporate sources into their writing so that the
sources don’t dominate or overwhelm the text, so that they support rather
than undercut what the writer has to say.
- Drafting. How do I write it?
Balancing all the above questions, and other concerns as well, writers
draft their assignment, working toward the production of a document that
can be shown to others. Many writers find it useful to examine how they go
about writing different kinds of documents, making explicit exactly what their
writing processes are.
- Gathering feedback. How do I know if it’s any good?
Writers often take the time to do a kind of market survey, asking friends,
colleagues, teachers, room-mates, advisors, editors, or even parents for
advice on revising their drafts: what works? what doesn’t? what’s
missing? what needs cutting?
- Revising. What do I need to change?
Writers are constantly revising their work, as they compose, between
drafts, even in their sleep. When they get preliminary feedback from
readers, they must decide which comments to accept and which to ignore.
Not all readers will agree on revisions, and it is ultimately the writer
who must take responsibility for the text.
- Formatting. What sort of document is my audience
Not only must writers select content and shape it to meet the demands of
the writing task, they must also present their writing in a form that
readers will find appropriate, authoritative, or professional. Readers
often do judge the book by its cover: they expect writers to follow the
conventions of a genre, or to have a good reason for breaking those
- Knowing when to stop. Am I done yet?
One of the most difficult tasks writers face is knowing when they are
done, when to hit the print button. Some writers are "done"
because class starts in half an hour. Others know that five minutes’ more
work is all they need to get that text just where they want it to be. And
five minutes after that, they know they still need just a little more
time. Some writing deadlines are flexible. Others, however, are fixed, and
like it or not, we just have to put our pencil down and hand in what we’ve
Given all of the above, the writer’s main
and most difficult objective is to keep the readers
reading. And to proofread what we write.
Dennis Baron is professor of English and
linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.