A Seven-Step Plan for Writing, Editing, and Revising Your Assignments
Educators advise student writers to follow a seven-step plan for producing high-quality writing: prewrite-write-edit-revise-edit-proofread-revise.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Educators and writing experts advise student writers -- and indeed all writers -- to follow this seven-step plan for producing any piece of writing: Prewrite-Write-Edit-Revise-Edit-Proofread-Revise.
Prewriting. In addition to getting you started on writing your paper, prewriting can also spark your interest. Write about the topic before you even do any research about it. This pre-writing should have the effect of motivating your research and shaping your thinking about the topic. The exercise will help you develop an effective approach to the topic. The pre-writing needn't be a major, time-consuming project but as little as a page or so of rough writing and/or notes.
Your pre-writing should consist of three components:
- What you already know about the topic.
- How you feel about the topic.
- Your predictions for what you think your research will prove.
Writing what you already know about the topic is very much like brainstorming. Simply list everything you can think of about this topic. "Just start writing whatever comes to mind about the topic and then go over it and fix it as you go along," advises student Sarina O. "The hardest part is starting it, and that's how I deal with it. I don't think too much before I write. I start to think when I'm in the middle of writing. I do a lot of rearranging, cutting and pasting, and deleting when I write."
Next, write about your feelings on the topic. Jot down any preconceived notions, biases, or opinions you may have about the subject. Write down any personal memories associated with the topic. "A lot of times I just write what I feel," notes student Laura B. "Teachers like your opinion, and if you can find something from the reading or research that relates specifically to your life, they like it even more because it allows you to take ownership of your work. I write things that I want others to read; not things that I have to write because the teacher said so." If you didn't develop the topic yourself, speculate on why you think your professor assigned you this topic.
Finally, make some educated guesses as to the conclusions that your research will lead to. Hypothesize what the arguments will be and which ones will prevail. Predict how your paper will turn out.
During the prewriting process, ensure that you know who your audience is -- generally your instructor -- and think about how you will meet your audience's requirements. The prewriting phase is a good time to decide how you will limit your topic and decide what your thesis statement will be.
Writing. In the writing phase, draw from your prewriting and follow your outline to construct the first draft of your paper. Let your assignment guide you -- what type of paper has your professor asked you to write? Write a compelling opening paragraph that entices the reader and coherently states your thesis or main point. Ensure that you've logically arrived at your conclusion and that you've expressed it well.
Time is at a premium in writing a college paper. Yet, some college students still make the writing process twice as long as it needs to be by first composing their papers in longhand and then typing them. Essentially, they do double the work. Old habits die hard. If you've always composed in longhand before typing, you may find it difficult to break out of the routine. If you can learn to cut the two-step process down to one, however, you can save yourself enormous amounts of time. If you're unaccustomed to composing on your computer, you will likely benefit from a road map, such as an outline.
You may find if helpful to write more than the minimum and then edit down. Say your professor requires a certain number of words. Consider in your first draft writing several hundred more than that. It's always easier to trim out excess fat than it is to try to come up with substantial and well-written arguments if the paper is too skimpy.
Pay close attention to properly citing the sources you quote using the citation style your instructor has asked you employ. You may find it easier to construct your bibliography (also called a "References" or "Works Cited" section) as you arrive at places in your paper where you are quoting from one of your sources -- rather than save the tedious bibliography for the end.
Editing. In the editing phase, read primarily for content (but make a note of faulty mechanics you spot) and identify what's good about the paper. Signal all the cogent, well-written passages with a mark in the margin. "Reread your paper multiple times," recommends student Amber J. "You can almost always find a way to improve the paper. Have at least one or two people read your paper before you are done. It is good to hear other people's opinion because teachers will have a different opinion from your own."
Scrutinize your thesis statement and ensure that you've presented all those good passages in an order that supports your thesis. You may at this point notice that you've left out important arguments or details that would bolster your premise.
Revising. Insert missing pieces in an almost-final draft using all your best passages and new arguments in logical order. Where necessary, construct or improve transitions to get you smoothly from one passage to the next.
Editing. Having inserted your edits, read the revised draft aloud or into a tape-recorder and play it back. Watch for when you run out of breath in reading a sentence; that sentence is probably too long and complex. Reading aloud is a great way to flag down awkward constructions, bumpy sentences, missing transitions and punctuation, and just plain murky writing.
Proofread. Finally, read your paper one more time with an eye toward spelling and grammatical errors, and correct those errors for the final Revision. Most of us are notoriously bad proofreaders of our own work. Thus, the more distance we can put between ourselves and our writing, the better proofreaders we'll be. One of the best ways to achieve this distance is to allow enough time to proofread your paper once, put it down overnight (longer if your schedule allows), and then take a fresh look at it the next day -- or better yet, ask a friend to view it with fresh eyes. "I always print out the paper and come back to it the next day and reread it," agrees grad student Sarah P. "That is the easiest way for me to catch my own mistakes. I have to give my eyes a break from it, and if I just wrote it, I think it looks perfect. But if I look at it a day later, I almost always find grammatical errors or phrases and sentences I just want to reword."
As you are finalizing your paper, be sure you know how your instructor prefers written assignments to be packaged. Is a cover page required? Does the professor like report covers? What about margins, fonts, page numbers, and headings? Some teachers are so particular about these requirements that you can hurt your grade if you fail to follow instructions. Most professors at least want you to staple your paper. We can't tell you how many students have asked us when turning in assignments, "Do you have a stapler?" My response: "Would you ask your boss for a stapler when handing in an important report?"
Final Thoughts on How to Craft an Excellent Writing Assignment
The seven-step plan of prewriting, writing, editing, revising, editing, proofreading, and revising may seem like a lot of redundant work, but it's a surefire way to craft an excellent writing assignment.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.