On writing-5: The three stages of writing

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 in the series.)

I believe that part of the reasons students end up plagiarizing, either inadvertently or otherwise, is that they underestimate the time it takes to write. This is because they think that writing only occurs when they are actually putting words on paper or typing on a keyboard.

But writing involves really three phases: prewriting, writing, and post-writing.

Pre-writing probably takes the most time and often does not involve the physical act of writing at all. This is the time when the author is mulling things over in his mind, sorting ideas out, trying to find the main point he is trying to make, asking what kinds of evidence is necessary and what documents should be read for background, and seeking out those sources of information. It also involves (for some) sketching out an outline and making rough notes. It is during this process of slow digestion that you start the important process of synthesizing the ideas that you have got from many sources and making something of your own.

Prewriting is best done in a conscious but unrushed manner. For me, most of this prewriting is done in my head while doing other things such as walking or driving somewhere or doing routine chores or in those moments before falling asleep or just after waking. During those times, I am thinking of what to write, even to the extent of mentally creating actual lines of text, examples, and turns of phrase. I do this deliberately and consciously. In the SAGES Peer Writing Crew blog, Nicole Sharp says she thinks about writing while walking between classes, composing sentences in her head. This is an example of using time wisely, because some of the best ideas come to us when we are not consciously trying to generate them. It is to avoid interrupting this kind of prewriting that I have resisted carrying a cell phone or a Blackberry.

I think students may not appreciate how important this pre-writing phase is to writing. When given an assignment, they may wait until shortly before it is due and set aside a large block of time that they think is sufficient to write the five page paper or whatever it is that is required. But then they hit a block and don’t know what to say or how to say it because they have not gone through the important pre-writing phase. Without being aware of it, they are trying to compress the pre-writing and writing phases into one. But when you try to do that, it is hard to find your own perspective on a topic. So you end up using ideas from one or a few sources, mashing them together, while paraphrasing them to make it look like your own, thus running the risk of plagiarizing.

Instructors are partly to blame for this. We may not be informing students of the importance of prewriting, and in fact may be undermining that practice by giving short deadlines that do not really allow much time for the kind of thoughtful contemplation it requires. I am not sure how to structure writing assignments in my courses so that students get in the habit of prewriting but it is definitely something I am going to pay more attention to in my next course.

The post-writing phase is equally important, but equally neglected. This involves much more than simply editing the work. Editing for me means simply tightening things up, checking for grammar, improving word choice, and avoiding stylistic ugliness. The more important aspect of post-writing that once the writing phase has put my ideas into a concrete form, I can now keep returning to it, probing it, looking to see how to make it better. This may involve restructuring the argument, providing more evidence, finding a fresh image to capture an idea, inventing a telling metaphor, or looking for better sources. I like to let time percolate through the words I have written, creating a richer text.

All these things are best done in a conscious but unrushed manner. Most of this post-writing takes place in my mind while doing other things, like the prewriting phase. But this requires that we set aside time for it after the writing phase. If we are rushing to meet a deadline, this will not occur.

It is only the writing and editing parts that actually take up any ‘real’ time. All the other things can be done while living one’s life doing other things.

The pre-writing phase takes up the most time for me, followed by the post-writing phase, with the actual writing taking up the least time. When people ask me how long it took me to write either of my books, it is hard for me to answer. I usually say about six months because that is the time the actual writing phase took, and this is what people usually mean by ‘writing.’ But the prewriting phase that led up to each lasted much, much longer.

The same thing holds for these blog entries. The entire week’s entries take me about five to ten hours total of actual writing, depending on the topic. But before I write them, I have done a lot of pre-writing on each topic, doing research, collecting notes and creating the structure in my mind, all done in bits and pieces scattered over time, so that when I actually sit down and write (the writing phase), the words and ideas come fairly easily.

I also write almost all the week’s entries during the weekend prior to their posting. One reason for this practice is that the weekend is when I have more time to write. But the main reason is that after the writing is done, I have time to let my thoughts simmer and do some post-writing in my mind, enabling me to polish the entries during the week, before I actually post them.
The exceptions to this rule occur when something comes up in the news during the week that I feel impelled to respond to immediately, like the call center item last week or the Tiktaalik discovery the previous week. But even in these cases, the reason I can respond so promptly is that these topics have touched on something that I either care about a lot or know quite a bit about, which means that I have pretty much done the prewriting in my mind already, although I did not have a plan to actually write about it. I still leave some time for post-writing, even in these cases, usually by completing the writing the night before the morning posting.

But since students working on a short deadline do not have, or are aware of the need for creating, the time for pre- or post-writing, they end up producing work that is of lower quality than they are capable of. The challenge for instructors and students is how to help students become aware of the immense importance of the prewriting and post-writing phases, and how to structure assignments and deadlines to help them get used to doing it and have the time to do so.

Peter Elbow, in his book Everyone Can Write, gives some valuable advice. He recommends that writers create two distinct mindsets when writing. One mindset is a very accepting one, where any idea that comes into one’s head, any sentence, any image or metaphor, is accepted by the author as being wonderful and written down or stored away for use. This attitude is great in the prewriting phase, because it enables you to generate a lot of ideas.

The second mindset is the critical one, where we evaluate what we have written and ask whether it is worth retaining, whether it should be improved upon, or phrased better. This is best done in the post-writing phase.

Many of us get stuck in our writing because we are trying to do both things simultaneously. An idea comes into our head and we immediately start to analyze or critique it wondering whether it should be included or not. This blocks our progress and we get stuck.

Of course, none of these distinctions can be really rigid. When we are critiquing an idea in the post-writing phase, that might generate a new idea and we have to switch to an accepting phase. But being aware that an attitude that is accepting of ideas and one that is critical of ideas have to be adopted as the need arises can prevent one from having that awful feeling of thinking that one has ‘nothing to say.’ We all have something to say. It is just that we do not know if it is worth saying. It helps to postpone that judgment.

Realizing that we need to say whatever is on our minds and only later judge whether it is worth saying is a good habit to cultivate.

This series of postings on writing is, in itself, an illustration of how writing grows. I had initially only meant to write about the plagiarism issue, triggered by the Ben Domenech fiasco in the Washington Post. But as I wrote about it, the topic branched off into many related areas, and ideas occurred to me that were not there when I started.

So I guess the lesson to be taken from all this is that you should just start writing about anything you care about, and see where it goes. You will probably be surprised at where you end up.

POST SCRIPT: Where the religious people are

Ever wondered where Catholics are most concentrated in the US? How about Mennonites? Jews? Muslims? Lutherans? Well, now you can find out with this series of maps that shows, county by county, the density of populations of the various religious denominations.

It did not provide a breakdown for atheists. This is because they were getting their numbers from the membership lists of religious institutions in each area and atheists don’t have formal groups. What was interesting, though, was that there were a surprisingly large numbers of counties where the total number of religious adherents of any stripe was less than 50%.

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