Fatal Flaws in the Traditional Writing Process

Why Everything You Learned in School is Wrong

Flaws with the traditional writing process:

  1. Prewrite.
  2. Draft.
  3. Revise.
  4. Edit.

Wait, did I hear you say 'but that's the whole thing!'? Yep, that's right. Every step of the traditional process is flawed, geared more toward easy grading for high school teachers than for real-world writing. Let's examine the steps in-depth.

1. Prewrite.

According to MIT's Writing Process web page:

1. Prewriting is anything you do before you write a draft of your document. It includes thinking, taking notes, talking to others, brainstorming, outlining, and gathering information (e.g., interviewing people, researching in the library, assessing data).

2. Although 'prewriting' is the first activity you engage in, generating ideas is an activity that occurs throughout the writing process.

That's all? That's it?! “...anything you do before you write a draft of your document.” What happened to setting goals? What happened to targeting ideas? Oh yeah, that comes later, in the draft and revision sections. Instead of focused brain dumping, researching, and preparing, you're going about gathering fuzzy data and info that will overwhelm your ideas instead of building them. It's like gathering food for a meal before you know what the recipe calls for.

Then look at step two. Generating ideas is an activity that occurs throughout the writing process. The very name of the step is flawed – 'prewriting' isn't prewriting. It's an attempt to consolidate many steps into one (brainstorming, research, etc.), glossing over the true heart of speech composition.

2. Draft.

1. Drafting occurs when you put your ideas into sentences and paragraphs. Here you concentrate upon explaining and supporting your ideas fully. Here you also begin to connect your ideas. Regardless of how much thinking and planning you do, the process of putting your ideas in words changes them; often the very words you select evoke additional ideas or implications.

2. Don't pay attention to such things as spelling at this stage.

3. This draft tends to be writer-centered: it is you telling yourself what you know and think about the topic.

Yep, you are putting your ideas into sentences and paragraphs. You are generating new ideas. The problem, however, is the ideas you're working with. They're unfocused, they're not necessarily good, and as a result they're certainly not generating brilliant new leads – not at the rate they're generating dead ends.

As for point 2, it almost doesn't bear talking about. Spelling errors bother me, so I fix them as soon as I notice them (unfortunately, I don't notice them all too often). I'm not paying attention to them, I'm fixing them so they don't distract my attention. Ironically, the traditional writing process is at once too general ('prewriting') and too specific. If spelling errors bother you, fix them before they detract from your writing.

The 3rd point makes me shudder. Writer-centered? What gross inefficiency! It's almost as if the educators realized that the 'prewriting' step was inadequate to really develop brilliant ideas, so they're trying to make up for it by encouraging you to write to yourself, hoping that the brilliance will somehow magically appear in the process.

3. Revise

1. Revision is the key to effective documents. Here you think more deeply about your readers' needs and expectations. The document becomes reader-centered. How much support will each idea need to convince your readers? Which terms should be defined for these particular readers? Is your organization effective? Do readers need to know X before they can understand Y?

2. At this stage you also refine your prose, making each sentence as concise and accurate as possible. Make connections between ideas explicit and clear.

Here's the issue. This is the stuff you should be doing while you write. Then you can go back over it and do it even better. But separating the steps disrupts the flow as you go back and edit again and again, and in the process it leads to endless writing and rewriting without any real, efficient progress. Really, this is a rather minor step. Most of it should be covered in brainstorming and spinning sessions, leaving only minor revisions for the end. Revising is a good thing – but not in the context the world usually puts it in. Visit our Writing section to find out how revision is supposed to work.

4. Edit.

1. Check for such things as grammar, mechanics, and spelling. The last thing you should do before printing your document is to spell check it.

2. Don't edit your writing until the other steps in the writing process are complete.

Ouch. And this from one of the most prestigious universities in the USA. Checking your work is a good thing. But why not before it's done? If you want to leave it until the end, great. But if poor structure bothers you, this could kill your paper, destroy your speech! Nitpicking as you go through does waste time – but sometimes perfecting one section helps segue into the next. It's personal preference, folks. I work best with light editing as I write, heavy editing interspersed where needed, then a final deep-edit once I'm done. Evaluate your editing and put it in the most effective place, whether the other steps are complete or not.

Now get back to the real writing process – we're done here!

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