Writing is like driving at night. You can see only as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. — E. L. Doctorow, U.S. writer (b. 1931)
Writing is a powerful tool. It enables us to communicate with millions of people simultaneously — even people who are widely separated from us by miles or years.
The Writing Process
Writing is also an extremely complex process involving a number of subskills. When we are writing, we have to think about many things related to the message we want to communicate: organization, wording, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, letter formation (or keyboard location). If some of these skills have become automatic for us, our task will be easier because we will be able to devote more of our attention to composition of the message itself.
For even the most accomplished writer, the writing process is easier when it is approached one step at a time. For those of us who are less accomplished, breaking that formidable process into manageable steps becomes even more important.
First of all, banish the thought that your first draft will be your final copy. Develop a healthy respect — a reverence, even — for the process, for revision.
This flow chart gives an overview of the writing process.
During the seven lessons of this course we will focus on steps of the process in succession (three lessons will be devoted to various aspects of editing). Each step is important. If a writer attempts to do everything at once, however, no step gets the attention it deserves and the final product is likely to be inferior. (“Publishing,” incidentally, does not necessarily involve pay; it simply means that you are presenting your message to your audience.)
As you look at the flow chart, you will notice that conferring can play an integral part in the writing process. It can be an invaluable aid during planning, revision, and editing, even though the conferring that occurs at each of these points has its unique characteristics.
In selecting a person to confer with you, be sure to find someone who will give you honest feedback. Also try to find someone who has the expertise you need. For example, if you are writing a letter in which you want to gently deliver a difficult message, you would probably want to confer with someone who is tactful rather than brash. Of course, if you have not conferred with people before, you may not know their strengths and weaknesses.
Through experience, you will learn the talents of various people. Someone who is an excellent conferee in the planning stage might give less valuable feedback after the first draft is written. You do not need to confer with the same person throughout your project. Serving as reciprocal conferees can provide a good starting point. However, if more people are available, each of you can be more selective.
Particularly in the planning stage, you want a conferee who will get you to talk. You want someone who will listen carefully to what you are saying about your topic and ask you open-ended questions that will prompt you to talk more. Explaining your ideas orally is excellent rehearsal for putting them into writing. If you are writing to persuade, it might be helpful for your conferee to raise opposing viewpoints so that you can counter them. Sometimes it is good to select as your conferee someone who is unfamiliar with your subject matter. That enables you to see what information is needed and in what order it is desired.
Approaching the writing process one step at a time and enlisting the help of conferees will make the writing task more manageable.
Next Week: Planning: Determining your purpose; appealing to your audience
A. Select a topic on which you would like to express your viewpoint. (Since you will be working with this topic throughout this seven-week course, you might want to choose something that could effectively be communicated in mid-September or later.) You might try to bring others to your way of thinking. You might write an essay for college admission. You might simply recount a family story or tell a member of your family what he or she means to you.
B. Identify someone who would be a good person for you to confer with, particularly someone who would be good at getting you to express your ideas on your selected topic. (You might want to invite this person to enroll in this course also.) Your conferring could be accomplished by phone or e-mail (the latter would provide even more writing practice!).
C. Talk with your conferring partner — and perhaps with others as well — about your viewpoint on your selected topic. Although specific planning will continue next week, it is not too soon to begin to clarify your thinking.
D. As you are reading this week (especially reading things similar to what you will write), notice what seems effective to you and what does not. If you find something that you wish you had written, analyze it to determine exactly which qualities of the piece you would like to imitate. You might want to make a few notes from your reading or save some of this reading material for further study.