When you read a piece of good writing in The Economist, Folha de São Paulo or The New Yorker, you will probably wonder about the special powers of the writer. How is it possible to sit in front of a laptop and, in one go, come up with such a refined and polished text. The writer must have counted on a potent muse sitting by his side, you conclude. But, for anybody who has attempted the hard task of putting a piece of writing together, the recognition that the path is a little harder will soon dawn on him. Hemingway defined the process in the most dramatic way: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
Of course, the Hemingway process would not be very popular in most of our schools and online courses today. As we are concerned mainly about writing in the language class in this post, we need to draw a line. After all, chances are teachers and coordinators would be charged with abuse and put in jail if they expected or encouraged the students to follow anything like the method proposed by the great author of THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA.
Luckily, there is a third way: fire the muse and follow a step-by-step process to your writing activities. Writing is a skill students must master. We have never written so much as in today’s world. Most of our communication on the Internet occurs in the form of writing, one way or another.
Following the 5-step process we’ll be outlining below is probably the most effective way to come up with a good text. Of course, if you have the privilege of counting on good professional editors, the process becomes a lot easier, but not many people – least of all language students – can afford this luxury on a day-to-day basis, so we must rely on ourselves, and, if we are lucky, on some of our friends and classmates for aid.
Therefore, what we are advocating here is that writing should not be a solitary activity: pairs or groups of students should take part in it, although, ideally, each one should be working on his own individual piece. There are very clear steps to follow in what is generally know as process writing. This is, in our opinion, the best approach to teach and practice this productive skill in the language classroom. Let’s cover each of the phases in the sections below.
1. Brainstorming (generating ideas). When you are given a writing assignment, get together with a colleague and think of all the ideas the topic might generate. Don’t censor yourself at this stage, anything goes. If there’s no given topic, your freedom is even greater, and you will have fun imagining all possible topics, points-of-view, arguments or characters that may go into your piece. This is more fun when done with another person or in a small group. Then, each one can follow their own thread of thoughts, after this initial kicking off of ideas, and get down to writing their first draft.
2. Drafting. Now it’s time to prioritize all the wonderful ideas you generated in the step above. Consider the physical space you need for the text: is it a blog post, a story, an essay, an infographics design, a tweet? How many words are you supposed to use in your assignment? Don’t even consider using all your ideas. Pre-select, choose, discard, adjust, change. Cut, cut, cut. Establish what should go into each paragraph, which sentence you will pick as the topic one. Draft and redraft as many times as you feel you should. The more, the better. Change sentences to a different part of the text for stronger impact or more consistency. Decide what should be the beginning, the middle and the end of the piece. It’s always easier to start with the end. Remember the clever words of the Cheshire Cat to Alice, in Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
3. Revising. Now, possibly with the help of a friend, you are going to begin refining and polishing your text. Your colleague will read the text, ask questions whose answers he would expect to find in it, but does not. He will probably make suggestions. There’s no need to take everything he says into consideration. Your are the writer after all, so the final decision is yours, but try and incorporate some of his feedback. Apply your own critical thinking skills to decide if the text is coherent, well thought out, convincing, logical.
4. Editing. This next step involves going deeper in the process started in the previous step. Time to check for grammar, vocabulary and syntax mistakes. Make sure collocations and register (formal and informal) are adequate. Have the spellcheck on your computer on. Consult a thesaurus, dictionaries, and grammar guides. Read aloud to make sure your text sounds good, to make sure it sounds English. Enter phrases and idioms you wish to use into Google to see if they appear in other texts and really mean what you wish to say. Again, get help from your friends.
5. Publishing. This is the last phase of your work. You will be deciding on the images to use, the layout, the kind of font you find appropriate. This part is a lot of fun, in general. Reread it one more time. Any more changes? If you are using a digital device, be brave and push the button PUBLISH. Next time you write something it will be even easier.
Sometimes these steps may occur in a different order. Writing is messy. Moreover, the number of drafts cannot be stipulated: the more the better. But we all know there are time constraints to be taken into account, and the final product needs to be presented at some point. So let’s use common sense, and work on your piece within a time frame that suits your teacher’s expectations. In a language lesson, of course, it is the drafting that counts: the more you focus on polishing and making your piece more impactful and error-free, by adding ideas, deciding on the best location of sentences, breaking paragraphs in more consistent ways, and finally asking your friends for help to identify grammar and vocabulary problems, the more you will be learning. That’s when learning is really taking place. The final product is only the logical consequence of the hardest possible work you put into the project.
And remember, the final product does not need to be a masterpiece. The secret to fine writing has been repeated countless times by the experts – although both students and teachers seem to resist it: good writing is rewriting. Besides, writing improves over time, and the more you practice, the better results you will get. Good luck.
NOTE: If you are interested in process writing, you may consider checking out our eBook series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART. Click here for further info on the series: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS
Check out this fun video clip on our CARAVAGGIO eBook:
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