What Writers Do
Dennis Baron

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 start.

We also recognize

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:

  1. 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?
  2. Topic. Does the topic need to be narrowed or focused in order to make it do-able?
    Sometimes writers rephrase assignments to take control over them, to make them their own. Other times, they must accept and follow the wording of the assignment.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?
  8. 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.
  9. Formatting. What sort of document is my audience expecting?
    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 conventions.
  10. 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 got.

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.