Writing as Process

In most of the countries in which our informants were educated, whether high school or college, they did not take courses in writing nor were they given instruction in how to write the papers which were required in many of their courses. It is taken for granted that they already know how to write based on instruction they received early in their schooling on shaping the letters of the alphabet and learning the principals of grammar. The assumption is that if they have the information in their heads, they should be able to put it on paper clearly in a style reflective of the linguistic and cultural preferences of their native countries and/or locales. Writing processes, in other words, are almost completely transparent, and decisions about structure and organization are left up to the students.1 Until they came to the U.S., most of our informants did not have a language for talking about writing as discovery, about thesis and topic sentences, and, except very generally, about the genres of academic writing.  In the latter, however, they are not unlike our native-born students—and most teachers outside of composition studies–who tend to describe the characteristics of academic writing in broad, abstract terms, e.g. “clear,” “correct,” “to the point” (see, for example, Thaiss and Zawacki).

While they may not have had explicit instruction in how to write a paper, many of our informants talked about learning to write from what they read, particularly those who were taught to write from models of others’ writing, as we’ve already noted. Not surprisingly, most of our informants said that the first time they really thought about the process of writing was when they began studying in the U.S.

While the majority of our informants received little instruction in writing in their native countries, it was interesting to us to learn that, when informants talked about learning to write in English—in English courses in their native countries and/or for the TOEFL or GRE—they frequently named rhetorical modes to describe the papers they’d written, e.g. “narratives,” “descriptions,” and “arguments.” Their use of this modes-based terminology suggests that their teachers (and the test preparation materials) rely on traditional approaches to teaching writing, where the mode itself seems to be the exigence for writing rather than the audience or purpose.

~I never talk about strategies. When I feel like writing I just write. After I have something I start playing around with it. Maybe I don’t think that’s a strategy. But you have to have something. But you cannot write before having an idea. To me, having an idea is the most important thing. You need to have the idea before you start, I think.

~But you have to know, it takes a lot of time and effort for me to write… It’s like squeezing something out, and sometimes nothing comes out, even if you squeeze hard.

~First, I do brainstorming.  I do the readings, a lot of readings. The, I write a lot of quotes from the readings; then, from these quotes, I write the ideas I have got.  Then I make a scheme, and in the scheme I put all the arguments I want to use.  Then, I start writing the paper presenting the arguments in the introduction, then developing them in the development with examples I find, then the conclusion, repeating everything again.

~In Pakistan, we would just write and they would never tell us our weaknesses “okay you are weak at this thing; try to practice in this area.” They would never do that. They would just think that the whole class is the same and if someone is writing the best essay ever, we are supposed to write the same way.  But over here, it’s just amazing how they teach you stuff and the processes. I was really amazed when the teacher first told me that when you put down your thoughts, before submitting the paper, you have to read it aloud and I was amazed how many mistakes I picked up the first time.

~If you want to be proficient in academic writing in any field, you have to learn. You have to see how people write in your field, by reading a lot. I’m grateful to my professors for making me read a lot just because it’s easy to adjust your writing when you mimic someone’s writing in a way. Mimic the style, mimic the structure. So I read a lot before I started being proficient.

~I always revise. And I’ve started doing that since starting English, since coming to Mason. In my previous college [in West Virginia], it was mostly essays. We were required to write; every draft was part of your grade, so you felt like you were writing a whole new assignment. So you didn’t feel like it was revision or editing, but class requirement. As opposed to here where you have one huge paper at the end that’s valued 30% of your grade, and you really want to do a good job on that paper so you revise it constantly for clarity, for use of evidence and whatnot.

~Revision and drafting is a huge part right of process now. And you feel the importance of it because it’s not a requirement, but you are self-conscious about it and you look at your paper in a different way. And the effort that you put in proofreading and editing makes you value your paper and writing a lot more.

1  Until the mid-sixties, when writing process pedagogies took hold, writing instruction in the U.S. also proceeded from the western rhetorical understanding of writing as a direct transcription of thinking onto paper.  Thus, if one did not fully know or understand the topic, one could not write clearly.  This assumption is still very much present in many disciplines and for many teachers who do not think of writing as a means to discover and learn and who routinely tell students that clear thinking leads to clear writing.  .