The Writing Process in the Age of the Web
a introduction to the writing process for writing students
by Sharon Gerald
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The Writing Process in the Age of the Web
Process writing assumes that good writing doesn’t happen in one step, that it must go through a series of interrelated steps in order to arrive at the best possible results. This is what writing students have been taught for decades, and in the age of print publication, this has been a tried and true approach. Now we are left with the question of how it applies in an age of digital publication. First, we must recognize that the elements of good writing remain the same regardless of the delivery method. Next, we should note that human nature doesn’t change in the face of new technologies, nor does the average rate of human mistakes. With these in mind, we might justifiably assume that nothing has changed regarding the need to follow a clear writing process in order to arrive at the best results, and that would be true. However, what’s equally true is that our reality has changed. People often make writing public now (which is in effect publishing) without having time to go through the old reliable method of extensive revision and stringent editorial processes. News agencies now practice live blogging at political and sporting events as well as at natural disasters and other news-worthy occasions. Cable news networks not only Tweet the news but also report on what other people are Tweeting. This makes their writing both an on-the-fly job and an interactive job, considering that their Twitter followers can reply to them as fast as they can post. It also means that the very definitions of publishing and broadcasting are taking on new shapes. Reporters now have to write extemporaneously in addition to speaking well under pressure. If they make mistakes, everyone sees. If they make too many mistakes, their followers switch to another channel and another Twitter feed, and their networks take a loss in advertising revenue. It’s tempting to believe only professional writers have to worry about this level of offthe-cuff communication, but that’s not necessarily true. Businesses tend to interact with their customers where they find them, and if customers are following social networks and live blogs, that's where businesses look for them. Even real estate agents use Facebook to solicit new clients. Likewise, corporations that may have once sent out monthly or quarterly newsletters to their employees on slick colorful paper can now easily email, blog, Tweet, and Facebook those publications, making it a simple matter to send them out more often. The point is most jobs require some writing, and more jobs than you might expect require web writing which may or may not allow a whole lot of time for seeking feedback and making corrections.
None of this is to say that lengthy processes are not still applied to writing. Of course they are. The traditional newspaper, magazine and book are still around. The traditional brochure and newsletter are still around. And even on web pages, marketing teams often devote enormous amounts of time and energy to producing the best possible results. What this shift in paradigms does tell us, however, is that as writers we need to be prepared to work under both ideal and less than ideal circumstances. Even if you don’t always have time to practice the ideal process for writing, you should understand it and apply as much of it as possible to any given project. You should also recognize that viewing writing as a process and working your way through that process over and over and over builds up your writing skills in a way that will make you less likely to err when cutting corners under pressure. What is the Writing Process? In order to understand what’s changed, it’s important for us to understand the steps in the process that has worked for many, many successful writers before us.
1. Brainstorming. This just means jot down ideas, or think on the page. One of the
more popular forms of brainstorming is to simply make a list. This list might include what you already know about your topic, what you need to find out, what you know of your audience and what your goals are in addressing them. It may not even be that complicated. You might simply just start listing the points you want to make in keyword form. In any case, brainstorming helps you think through your subject before really trying to write about it. There are a variety of methods for doing this. Some people prefer drawing bubble maps or clusters in which they write a topic in the middle of the page and literally draw bubbles of ideas and information out from there. Others might divide their brainstorming lists by columns or sub-headings. Still others, who are more visually oriented, might actually start by sketching out pictures. This method works best for descriptive writing, and shows us that the same person might brainstorm differently for different occasions. Some writers carry notepads with them and simply jot down random sentences as they cross their minds. When enough of these sentences add up, they have viable brainstorming lists, and they have a much better idea of what they want to write about and what they want to say.
2. Freewriting. A form of brainstorming in which people write continuously for a
certain amount of time without stopping to edit, freewriting was promoted and popularized among writing teachers by Peter Elbow (and others) in the 1970s. The idea is to turn off internal censors and just write by free association, letting one idea lead to the next. This method can produce surprising and useful results. When we don’t censor our writing, our free association thought process often leads us in new directions that we may not have thought of if we’d made an effort to be logical about our next sentence or next point. It’s often referred to as “discovery writing” for this reason, and as such it is an excellent way to get past the feeling of writer’s block. When we just start writing and letting the thoughts flow we discover what we want to say as we go. Often we discover that what really matters to us is not at all what we started out to say. We discover as we go what we think, how we feel, and how much we know about our topics.
3. Selecting a Thesis. Academic writing has traditionally been thesis based, meaning
that it has one overall point it seeks to prove or support. Other writing may not necessary have a thesis statement with the main point summed up in one sentence, but most writing has an idea or a set of ideas to convey. Therefore, knowing your point and how to articulate it is important no matter what kind of writing you are doing. Even novels and poems have themes. Though these themes may not be stated explicitly, they are still implicit in the outcome of the story or in the imagery of the poetry. Before writing anything you want to share with others, it’s best to be clear with yourself what your point is. If you don’t know, chances are no one else will be able to figure it out either. Freewriting is wonderful as a brainstorming technique, but freewriting isn’t meant to be public writing,at least not formal public writing of the sort that you might do for school or on the job. In freewriting, you discover what you want to say as you go. In drafting any kind of public writing, you need to know what you want to say and set about deliberately to make your case.
4. Organizing. This might involve constructing a formal outline, or it might be as
simple as extracting points that make sense when put together from a brainstorming list. In any case, after brainstorming and freewriting, you’ve probably generated a lot of information in no set pattern. Before proceeding, it helps to find the patterns and figure out what you want to say and in what order. Do you want to tell a story in chronological order? Do you want to build persuasive point from the weakest up to the strongest? Do you need to cut out
some ideas simply because you will not have time to do them justice? All of these issues pertain to organization and can go some distance in helping you strengthen your writing.
5. Drafting. Drafting is different from freewriting because this time your internal
censors are turned on. You are trying to write in a set pattern and remain focused on a particular idea. You may or may not stop to correct errors in a first draft, but you will, for the most part, write in organized paragraphs and attempt to address the major points you’ve decided to cover.
6. Evaluating. To evaluate means to judge the quality and effectiveness of a given
item, to look for ways to improve. You should always practice rigorous selfevaluation, but it’s also helpful to solicit the opinions of others. Turn to classmates and instructors in school and to colleagues, writing groups, and friends outside of school. A new eye, a new ear, a new perspective is invaluable. Some things to consider when evaluating your work or the work of others include: ◦ What are the major strengths and weaknesses in content? ◦ What are the major strengths and weaknesses in sentence style? Are there sentences that need to be reworded or clarified? ◦ What points are left unresolved? Where do you need more information? Where are you left unconvinced? ◦ Are the voice and the level of vocabulary and diction appropriate for the audience and purpose? ◦ Is there anything that is likely to offend the audience? Is saying it important enough to risk offending people? Is there a way to make the same point with less risk of offense? ◦ If sources are referenced, are they used in proper context and cited correctly? ◦ Are there any errors that should be corrected? If so, are there patterns of errors that the writer can work toward reducing in the future?
7. Revising. To revise means to change. It means much more than simply to
correct. In revision, look to making substantive changes in content, organization, and wording. Any writing can be improved through revision, and any writer can become stronger by paying the close attention to his or her writing that revision requires. Revision goes hand in hand with evaluation. You evaluate in order to understand how to revise. You revise in order to improve. One of the biggest mistakes inexperienced writers often make is in not devoting enough time to revision. It's too easy to believe that a first or second or even
third draft is good enough or that it is the best you are likely to do. It's even pretty easy to take pride in it, to believe it is great stuff and everyone should love it as it is. Maybe everyone will love your draft as it is. That doesn't mean it can't be better. Writing can always be better. Even good writing can improve through rigorous revision. In as much as time allows, try not to shortchange yourself by neglecting this stage in the writing process.
8. Editing. Finally, with editing, we reach the point of correcting. Though editing
might be, and usually is, done a little at a time out all of the other steps, it should be done again and again as a last step before a piece is published. No matter how many times you’ve read over your own work, you will likely spot mistakes on another reading. If you ask a classmate or instructor to look over it, that person will likely spot mistakes as well. Errors are human nature, and often in correcting one we create another. Proofread anything you write very carefully. Even though you may not have noticed an error, it can be distracting to those who do. These steps work in roughly the order—though not always the exact order—in which they are presented here, but they’ve never been meant to work independently of one other. Often a writer might work through a few steps and then back up and do them again so as to generate new material. Brainstorming and freewriting are particularly helpful in moving a writer past the point of being “stuck.” Likewise, in the best writing, the evaluating and revising steps often happen multiple times, and editing probably takes place along and along throughout all of the drafts. Working through steps, no matter how many times or in what order, is important because it means a great deal of thought has been put into both content and wording. We know that in any endeavor we don’t do our best work without really thinking, really paying attention to what we are doing. This is the kind of work that will pay off in the long term. Taking one piece of writing through a substantive process and many drafts will not only improve that particular piece of writing, it will also teach you things about your own writing style that will help you do a better job the next time you sit down to write. Approaching writing as a process, then, means you, as a writer, are teachable. You are open to growth. You are willing to learn from your own mistakes. You are invested in becoming better both as a writer and as a thinker.
How is The Writing Process Changing? The ideal process has not changed. The circumstances that dictate how much of the ideal process is possible and in what way it is possible are often—but not always—quite different in the digital age. Consider this. Blogs offer easy ways to compose online. Publishing requires nothing more than typing and submitting. Wikis offer the same ease of publishing in a format that allows for multiple or collaborative authoring. Emails, listservs, microblogs, mass text messaging, and many other forms of digital writing might also function on the typeand-submit model. Nowhere on the screen does it ask the writer to brainstorm, freewrite, and outline first. Indeed, taking the time to do these things would often be counterproductive. The success of digital writing may very well (though not necessarily) rely on its speed of production. The writing process as we have long known it assumes that writing will not be published until it has been polished. The web operates on almost an opposite assumption. Wikis and blogs are often edited after the writing has been made public. This is not to say the old method will not continue to live on. Even if incredible amounts of writing are now being published digitally in ways that don’t always follow the same steps in the same order, the age of print isn’t dead yet. Much of the more “heavy duty” writing of our time is still happening according to the old methods and will continue to do so indefinitely. Of course, web writing can also be categorized as “heavy duty.” This isn’t about one format being privileged over the other, nor is it about one form replacing the other. In the same way radio and television exist simultaneously, the proliferation of one is not necessarily going to snuff out the other entirely any time soon. Additionally, much of the more “heavy duty” web writing does follow a process similar to the print methods of old. There are online peer reviewed journals that ask for extensive revisions before publishing. There are commercial enterprises in which teams of people work and rework together in order to produce the best possible draft before posting anything online. There are also e-books to consider. These certainly qualify as digital writing, but they go through exactly the same editing process as their print counterparts. In many ways, the writing process of the present is the same as it has been traditionally. In many contexts, writing for digital environments changes nothing about what the writer must do to excel.
What is also true, however, is that the changes wrought by shifts into more and more quickly published web writing demand that we reevaluate how we think about writing and process. Already people question whether print versions of newspapers will even survive another twenty or thirty years. Actually, they question whether print news will survive another five years. Web news has become the more prolific of the two, changing the definition of print journalist. Now, newspaper sites are updated frequently throughout the day rather than being published once a day like their print counterparts. Reporters for these news sites often post from the scene of a news event and include video clips in their reports. Whereas once, we had clear lines of distinction between broadcast journalism and print journalism, now those lines blur. With that blurring, we have the need for additional speed introduced to print journalism. This speed changes the process the journalist undergoes. Academic writers face similar changes. Whereas in the none too distant past academic writers had only the options of publishing in a book or publishing in a journal in order to reach an audience of other academics through the written word, now they frequently communicate via blogs, wikis, and other social networking platforms. While they might still reserve their more “serious” work for books and journals, they are publishing in ways that utilize an altered writing process. Businesses once had only advertisements, catalogues, sale papers and newsletters with which to get the word out about their products. These all had to go through printers and other processes that were time-consuming. Now all of these things can be done electronically, and therefore can be published and updated muck quicker. This doesn’t mean they don’t still go through a rigorous process in order to prevent mistakes, but it does mean their process is changing. The ideal remains that a writer take plenty of time to think, draft, revise and edit before “going live,” but the degree to which any of these steps is possible changes based on the circumstances. What is the New Media Writing Process? There is no single process for writing on the web. There are as many processes as there are tools and platforms. A blog is not often drafted in the same way as a static web site, and a podcast—if written out ahead of time at all—is scripted differently from a screencast or video. And yes, all of those count as writing for the web. One thing is true for any new media writing, however. It involves as many steps of the traditional writing process as time and circumstances allow. When time doesn’t allow, adjustments are made. We accept this, but we still recognize that the faster anything is
produced, the more likely it will not be as professionally done as we might prefer. We also recognize that this new reality compels us to practice writing well with as few mistakes as possible in as little time as possible. In a way, this reality isn’t so new after all. Universities have given timed essay exams for as long as students have had ready access to ink and paper. Offices have sent out business letters quickly and with little to no revision for just as many decades. If you think it is difficult to imagine producing a blog post with virtually no mistakes and no time to edit, just imagine what it would have been like type a business report by dictation on a typewriter before the invention of correction tape. Pity the monks who for centuries copied treasured manuscripts out by hand, neatly, painstakingly, and with relatively few errors. Written communication has always required that there be people with the skill to put words on the page quickly and impeccably, but herein is the difference—in past generations those people were particular experts at writing, copying, or typing. The digital age makes it possible for more of us than ever before to communicate on the fly through the written word. It requires more of us than ever before to do so as part of our jobs. Thus, the proliferation of writing done quickly yet for professional purposes requires that more of us than ever before hone our skills. In this age, we all need to become experts at writing and typing without making very many mistakes. None of us will ever become perfect, but we all should strive to become as expert as possible. To accomplish this, we need to do two main things: (1) Practice the traditional steps of the writing process until they become second nature and can be done quickly if necessary; (2) Learn how to successfully adapt that process to the programs and features available to us via electronic devices or online resources. Brainstorming, for example, can become part of drafting if typed into a word processing file as a list of subject headings. Editing, evaluation, and revision can all become part of drafting as well. There is no rule that says you can’t write a first, second and third draft all in one sitting if you must. Generally, it is best is you have some time to put a piece of writing aside until you can look at it again with a fresh eye, but the more you look at it and the more intensely you look at it, no matter what the timeline, the better it will be. How Can a Workable Writing Process be Adapted for the Web?
1. Use the tools. Spell checks, grammar checks, and other short cuts, while no
substitute for fluent knowledge of a language, do help to reduce errors. Use them exuberantly, but use them wisely. Don’t allow anything automated to change your spelling or wording without paying careful attention.
English teachers tend to have a love-hate relationship with spell checkers due to the inattentiveness with which they are often used. Some students have even been known to allow a word processing program to change the spelling of their own names. Unless your name really is Lasagna, you probably don’t want to submit your essay under that byline. It will be a dead giveaway that you did not use the tools available to you wisely.
2. Manage time wisely. If you know you are not going to have a lot of time for a
project, plan ahead to allow as much time as possible with as few distractions as possible.
3. Do your homework. Is there any part of your writing project that can be
researched, brainstormed, or organized ahead of time? In a live debate, participants can’t take much time to think about what they want to say, but they will make fools of themselves if they have not studied up on potential answers ahead of time. Plenty of writing projects, carry the same necessity. Read, plan, and think as much as possible before going into a situation that will require extemporaneous writing.
4. Recognize that everything is part of your process. Though we have certain steps
that are taught as part of the process, we recognize that everyone has their own individual rituals as well. Perhaps gathering and organizing your office supplies is part of the process that helps you think about what you want to say or at least sparks your motivation. Maybe you need a few sips of coffee or a walk around the block before your muse strikes. Whatever works for you on a personal level in traditional writing should also be adapted to web writing in as much as it is possible. Find a way to create a personal comfort zone for writing whether online or off.
5. Value your chances to practice . It can’t be said enough. Practice, practice,
practice! If you know you are going to have to write a time essay to qualify for graduate school, you’d be a fool not to practice it ahead of time. Likewise, if you know your school, job, or other interests are going to lead you into situations that require quick thinking and quick writing, do as much of that type of writing as possible as often as possible. Runners don’t wait until they step onto the track on the day of the race to find out how fast they can move, and neither should you.
6. Don’t be too easily satisfied. Having little time for proofreading doesn’t
necessarily mean having no time. Learn to look back over your writing as you go and to make corrections as necessary.
7. When time allows, read aloud. Reading aloud is one of the best tricks available to
you no matter what kind of writing you do. We more easily hear mistakes than
see them, and pronouncing the words forces us to read them all rather than just scan through them. Our natural tendency is to see on the page what we think is there, especially if it is our own writing. The best way to overcome this tendency is to sound the words out.
8. Actively seek feedback. Feedback is an essential part of the writing process no
matter how you go about it. Maybe you don’t have time to find someone to meticulously read through your entire draft to make comments. Don’t let that stop you from asking a colleague, “What do you think of this sentence?” Identify your own potential weak spots and seek specific feedback wherever general feedback is not a viable option.
9. Apply today’s lessons to tomorrow’s drafts. Like athletes and musicians who
study prior performances for mistakes so as to avoid them in the future, writers should also rigorously critique their own work even if it is “too late” to fix any weaknesses in that work. The ability to spot your own mistakes is a skill in itself that should be constantly cultivated.
10. Study the experts. No matter what you want to accomplish it always helps to look
at the people you most admire in order to understand how they achieve what you want to be able to do. Careful analysis of success will help you develop your own tricks of the trade more than almost anything else you can do.
11. Fix after publishing. No matter how hard you try to avoid mistakes and to
present your best possible writing to the world on your first try, sometimes you will end up posting or publishing a piece of digital writing that is not as clearly thought out as you might like or that simply contains errors. Don't sweat it. Accept that you can make fixes after publishing. In fact, rejoice in the fact that you can. If it were a print publication, you would be stuck with the errors forever, or at least for the lifespan of all existing copies. If necessary, proofread later and make corrections later to web writing. If people point out errors in your writing, as they very well may do, take it all in stride, and make changes where you believe they are necessary.
12. Become part of a writer's community. No matter what kind of writing you are
doing, you will need a support system for your work. You'll need a community of people to share ideas, feedback, and encouragement. In the classroom, you may be arranged into peer groups for this purpose. Outside of the classroom, you may want to form your own writer's group to meet in person or online. If you are an online writer, though, you might build a community through networking. You might begin exchanging comments on blogs with like-minded people. You might use a network you've already established, such as a set of
Facebook friends in order to solicit feedback on your work. You might even create your own social network just for writerly friends on a site like Ning or as a Google Group. However you go about it, feedback and support are essential to writers. Do everything you can to assure that you have them to bolster your efforts and your continued success as a writer.
All in all, your writing process should be custom fit to you and to your writing situations. By all means, take the advice of other writers. The process you'll be taught to follow in English classes is taught because works. It's been followed for generations by professional writers and students alike. That said, every writer is unique. Every writer has unique needs, habits, quirks, and preferences. Find what works for you and go for it. But do take the time to discover what works for you. Writers develop their processes over many years. If yours doesn't evolve and change over time, you probably aren't putting much effort into it, which probably means you aren't putting much effort into your writing. You know that won't produce the best result. Experiment from time to time with new approaches. Be adaptable when you find yourself in new situations. Continually seek out new sources of inspiration and new sources of writerly tips and tricks. Know that if you are going to be the best writer you can be you will always be in a process of growing your writing process. With or without constant technological change, this would be true. It is particularly true in a world in which your primary medium for writing will be continually in a state of flux. If you can live with that, you are well on your way. You are already in a state of becoming the best writer you can be.