Stages of WritingWriter's Web
(printable version here)

1. Understanding the Prompt
2. Starting Early
3. Planning and Outlining
4. Writing a Draft
5. Proofreading and Editing

1. Understanding the Prompt

As Kendall suggests in "The Assignment Sheet Mystery" (PDF):

  • Look at the prompt in pieces; "decode" it (3). What goals do the prompt set? In what way does one's thesis go about answering the prompt? (1)
  • Read the prompt carefully. What is the central task? Check for side questions that may or may not be related to the central subject matter (2).
  • Look for keywords such as "explain," "analyze," "compare," "contrast," "argue," "criticize," "evaluate," "determine," or "describe" and design your writing so that it addresses the intent of the keywords (4).
  • Make sure that your answer appropriately responds to the language of the prompt and provides clear answers to all parts of the question.

Some prompts may contain terms that are not immediately familiar to you (3). Check your dictionary and your notes. Going over the assignment immediately gives you the time to speak to your professor or make an appointment with the Writing Center to seek clarification outside or inside of class. While in-class explanations can seem a little embarrassing, more often than not, the rest of the class is just as confused, and grateful to have someone else voice their own concerns.

2. Starting Early

One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is procrastinating. Read over the assignment sheet as soon as possible, and start considering different approaches to the prompt.

An early start allows you to budget your time and avoid having to do everything at the last minute. Twenty hours of writing stretched over two or three weeks is much more manageable than twenty hours of writing stretched over two days.

When writing a research paper, particularly one that focuses on a particular field of philosophy or philosopher, you will often find that the student who begins earliest has access to the greater number of resources.

Early beginnings often provide more time to proofread your first drafts and have a friend, writing consultant, or even your professor provide feedback.

3. Planning and Outlining

It is okay to not have a thesis immediately, but you should start to ask yourself what interests you about the prompt. Is there any way to make the concerns of the paper more interesting to you?

Make an outline broken up by each of the sub-questions in the prompt, paying careful attention to the key words in each sub-question. For each sub-question, write a few bullet points about ideas you have that you want to incorporate into your answer.

Make sure that there is a logical progression (even if it's just the order that the questions were presented) to how you answer the prompt. Check to see if your answers in each section are consistent, and if applicable, that they all tie together to build a stronger argument.

4. Writing a Draft

After going over any inconsistencies with the outline, including reorganization and the addition or removal of additional considerations for your argument, start to consider the introduction and conclusion that the outline seems to suggest.

It sometimes helps to think of your outline as a skeleton. Your draft, in turn, provides the meat of the essay. How can you provide the information you want to discuss greater clarity? How can you move more smoothly from one thought to another? How can you better help the reader follow the progression of thought within the essay?

Also, remember that content is more important than word count. If you were not forced to reach or stay within a specific word count, how long would your paper be? Often, how much you feel comfortable writing about your topic is a reflection of how broad or specific your thesis is.

Make sure that all your paragraphs reference the main argument. There should not be any paragraphs in your paper that fail to do with your thesis. The paper is designed to deal with a specific issue(s) or debate(s) that should be clear to the reader. Use connective words and phrases to increase the flow of the paper.

When writing, make sure to use clear language. Unless you're seriously struggling with creating word differentiation, there shouldn't be any reason to take out a thesaurus. Often, purple prose tends obscure one's point rather than provide any illumination (Eubanks & Schaeffer 382). However, also remember to take time in all your papers to briefly explain what certain key phrases are and mean to the reader. Often, the best practice is to treat your audience as fellow scholars who are intelligent but unfamiliar with the topic.

Ideally, the first draft of any paper is not its last. Multiple drafts are an essential part of the writing and thinking processes.

See Chapter 6 of Hjortshoj's The Transition to College Writing for additional suggestions on how to view and address the argumentative essay, particularly pages 125-30.

5. Proofreading and Editing

The process of rereading and rewriting your Philosophy paper allows you to assess your thesis. Rewriting give you the opportunity to make your argument stronger, more concise and easier for your professor to comprehend (See the Writer's Web for advice on Clear and Concise Sentences) .

Ask yourself the following question when rereading each paragraph:

    • "Does each paragraph relate to my thesis?"
    • "Are there any wasted words or redundancy?"
    • "Is there anything that could benefit from further explanation?"
    • "Would my roommate be able to understand my argument?"

Next, walk away from your paper, whether it is for an hour or a day (this is where Starting Early comes in). It often helps one notice certain mistakes that are missed the first time around.

Throughout each step of the editing process, reading your paper aloud by yourself or with a friend, especially with specific consideration to how well the essay maintains focus and presents its argument, is also generally helpful for catching and understanding grammatical and structural errors (Shaparenko 11; Bartholomae 261-62).

This part of the process is also a good time to take your paper to the Writing Center. Here is a great place to get an overview of What to Expect from a Writing Center Conference.


Works cited

Bartholomae, David. "The Study of Error". College Composition and Communication 31.3 (Oct. 1980): 253-269.

Eubanks, P and Schaeffer, J. "A Kind Word for Bullshit: The Problem of Academic Writing." College Composition and Communication 59.3 (Feb. 2008): 372-388.

Kendall, A. "The Assignment Sheet Mystery." Writing Lab Newsletter 33.1 (Sept. 2008): 1-5.

Shaparenko, Bithya. "Focus on Focus: How to Facilitate Discussion in a Peer Group." Tutor's Column (April 2005): 11-12.

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