The process of writing - The nature and process of academic writing

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

The process of writing
The nature and process of academic writing

Different people write in different ways. For example, Creme and Lea (2008) describe four kinds of writer. The ’diver’ likes to plunge into writing part of an assignment as soon as possible. The ’patchwork writer’ likes to plan, and starts writing sections of an assignment at an early stage, and might then move those sections and their contents around within the written assignment. The ’grand plan writer’ likes to do plenty of research and thinking before committing to writing. They seem to hold the structure of the assignment in their head, and commit little to writing until they are ready to write the whole assignment. The ’architect writer’ prefers to build a visual structure for their assignment, perhaps a mind map or spider diagram, a flow chart, or a concept map (Chapter 5). They then organise their research and writing around this visual structure.

Not everyone falls into one of these four categories of writer. In fact, a person might be a blend of more than one category or, for example, might behave like a ’diver’ for short assignments but be more like an ’architect writer’ for longer ones. Even if you don’t fall neatly into one or more of these categories, you no doubt have preferences; for example, whether you like to make very detailed plans or like to start writing as soon as possible.


What kind of academic writer are you?

Which kind of writer (diver, patchwork, grand plan or architect), on balance, do you most closely resemble?

Not only are there different kinds of writer, but the same individual typically writes in different ways depending on the nature of the writing task. If you were to write a casual email to a friend your writing process would almost certainly be very different from the one you’d use when writing a practical report or an essay.


Different assignments, different approaches

Do you find you behave differently depending on the kind of assignment you are writing? If so, how?

(a)Write down two different kinds of assignment you need to complete for your coursework. Examples you might include are: an essay, a practical report, a review of an academic paper, a reflective account of your experience on a work placement.

(b)Is the way you organise your writing similar for both assignments? If not, in what way(s) is it different?

Despite there being differences between people in the way they like to write, and differences in the way an individual likes to write depending on the task, there are nevertheless recognisable stages in the academic writing process, which I’ve summarised in Figure 1.1.

Planning, researching, reading and note-taking

Composing (drafting)

Reviewing and editing

(everything you do before you actually start writing flowing prose)

(writing flowing prose in sentences and paragraphs)

(evaluating, rethinking, and revising what you have written)


Figure 1.1 Stages in an academic writing process

The writing process flows from left to right, but it is not one-way. It is an iterative process (stages may be repeated, so that the writing becomes refined through gradual improvement). For example, after a student has planned her essay, and started composing it, she might find that there are gaps in her argument. She may discover this as she composes, or only after she reviews her work after composing. In either case, she will find herself going back to the research stage to gather more information. This is not uncommon. If we remember that writing is a creative process, which develops our thinking, we may only discover gaps in our argument when we start to compose, or when we review our work. That is fine. But we do need to leave ourselves enough time to react to such events, which is why planning our writing is so important. But before that, we need to be sure that we have understood, as best we can, the task we are about to undertake.

Understanding the task

In a book like this I cannot cover every eventuality, or every writing task you might carry out. But what I can do is help you to ask appropriate questions, so that you can discover for yourself what you need to do to complete a task.

To be sure that you are fulfilling the requirements for a writing task, some of the key items you need to know are the purpose, scope and audience (readership) for your task. ’Purpose’ concerns why you have been given the task. Normally the purpose is framed as one or more learning objectives or learning outcomes (what you are expected to learn or develop, and show evidence of, as a result of completing the task). ’Scope’ concerns the detail and breadth of the task. Usually, the assumed reader is your assignment assessor.

Consider a task that has been set late in the first year of an undergraduate Psychology course:

Listen to the three examples of popular song provided and analyse their lyrics in terms of motivational theory. To what extent does each song reflect examples of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation?

The assignment contributes to your ability to: describe and apply motivational theory to everyday contexts; demonstrate your awareness of the significance of motivational theory in relation to contemporary Western society; recognise how cultural context favours or discourages different types of motivation. Your analysis should extend to 1,000 words.

The scope of the task has been made clear in both paragraphs of the assignment description. The purpose of setting the assignment has been given in the second paragraph (and the assessment criteria for the assignment should reflect this). The assumed qualities of the reader of the assignment have not been stated, and the student might need to ask their assessor to clarify who such a person might be. Usually the reader is taken to be at a similar level of experience to the student’s own. This means that basic knowledge is assumed, but ideas and terminology that are specific to the assignment may need to be defined and explained. A student might need to check with their assessor what knowledge they should assume on the part of their reader.

To give another example, Narduzzo and Day (2012) describe a Physics lecturer early in the first year of an undergraduate programme setting his students a 200-250-word assignment on a science topic that interests them. He directs them to read certain kinds of publication (such as New Scientist, Scientific American and Physics World) and asks them to write a clear and effective explanation of the chosen topic. Examples of topics students had chosen included Schrodinger’s Cat, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and hydrogen fusion. To meet the assignment’s criteria, students need to include a figure (image) in their account and at least one equation or symbolic expression (using mathematical or chemical notation). They also need to cite and reference 3-5 sources of information they have used. The assumed reader of their work is another student in their year. In other words, they have to write the assignment in a manner that another student in their year would understand.

Taking the information above, the scope of the assignment and the nature of the reader have been outlined. But the purpose of the assignment is not clearly stated in terms of learning objectives or outcomes (although the students are given the assessment criteria for the assignment). If I were a student given such an assignment, some key questions I would want to be able to answer in my own mind would be:

✵Why has the lecturer set this assignment? What exactly is he looking for?

✵How do I know if what I have written is clear and effective?

✵How do I include mathematical expressions within my text?

✵ In the text how do I refer to a figure?

✵How should I cite my sources and list my references?

If I were completing this assignment, I would also want to choose a topic that I was genuinely curious about, and that I wanted to know more about myself. Motivational theory (for example, Ryan and Deci, 2000) suggests that we are likely to find it easier, and perform better, if we take on a task that is intrinsically motivating (engaging in it because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable).

Planning and completing the task

For a piece of academic work, most of us plan the work before we write it. This planning might involve both scheduling the overall process (such as the time to be given to each part of the writing process) as well as outlining the structure of the document we are going to write.

For example, imagine a student is being asked to write an essay responding to the question ’With reference to three examples, how can the benefits of river dams be maximised and their negative impacts minimised?’ It is near the end of the first year of a Human Geography degree programme and

she has attended relevant lectures, and a tutorial session with several students and her personal tutor during which the assignment was discussed. She has also been given an initial reading list of three books as background reading for the assignment. Knowing that she has three weeks to write the 2,000-word essay, and that she has many other tasks to do, she might schedule the writing of the assignment as in Figure 1.2 (technically called a Gantt chart - a means of displaying parallel activities through time).


Figure 1.2 A schedule for writing a 2,000-word essay: ’With reference to three examples, how can the benefits of river dams be maximised and their negative impacts minimised?’

Firstly, notice that the different stages of the overall process overlap in time. This makes sense. Planning the structure of the essay, for example, is likely to be influenced by the information the student discovers during the literature searching and reading phase. The plan suggests that this student is not a ’diver’. She is not plunging into composing but is holding back until she has done much of her research and reading. Notice too that she plans to review and edit during the composing phase. In other words, parts of the work are to be checked and improved while other parts of the essay have yet to be completed. Again, this makes good sense and is also the way that many professional writers work.

Notice, too, that in the student’s plan she is being realistic about finishing the main research phase more than a week before the assignment is due in, and that she will start composing more than a week before the deadline. She aims to finish writing a near-final version 1-2 days before the deadline, so that she has time to make final checks.

Give yourself enough time

Many students do not leave themselves enough time to do final checks on their work. This includes making sure that they’ve kept to the word limit of the assignment, have cited and referenced correctly, have checked spelling, grammar and punctuation, and above all, that they’ve met the brief for the assignment. Completing these final checks can make all the difference between a pass and a fail, and can often improve final marks by 5-15% compared with what is achieved without this careful checking.

As for planning a structure for the assignment, doing this goes hand in hand with literature searching, reading and note-taking. After early research, the student might make a plan, either as headings and lists or bullet points (Figure 1.3a), or as a mind map or similar (Figure 1.3b).

One of the essay structure outlines in Figure 1.3 is a starting point. Once the student has carried out further research she will probably fill in more detail (such as which examples of dams to use) and might want to revise the plan, fine-tuning the content. As we shall see in Chapter 3, some students plan the essay in some detail, paragraph by paragraph, once they have finished the bulk of the research phase.

Literature searching, reading and note-taking

As the student writing the human geography essay is at an early stage in her degree programme, she has been given guidance about books to read and key papers to view, and she has attended relevant lectures and a tutorial. It is rarely too early to reveal curiosity and independence of mind and so she may decide to read further and delve deeper rather than just restricting herself to the material she has been given or the sources to which she has been directed. Those sources can provide leads to further sources, such as in the reference list at the back of a book or an article. Using web search engines such as Google Scholar or literature databases such as Web of Science, the student can discover more recent articles that have referred to earlier key papers (see Chapter 4).


Figure 1.3 An early outline for the structure of the essay ’With reference to three examples, how can the benefits of river dams be maximised and their negative impacts minimised?’: (a) using headings; (b) as a simple mind map (only Introduction shown in detail)

It is helpful to read with a clear purpose in mind when studying an article, book chapter or reputable website. That way you read strategically, hunting for what you need to complete the task. This is an efficient and flexible approach. It works on the well-established principle that reading a piece of work two or three times, with specific purpose(s) in mind, takes about the same time and is usually much more effective than reading through a source document slowly from beginning to end only once (see Chapter 5).

As for note-taking, this is determined by your purpose in reading your source and your personal preferences. I take relatively few notes from a source article but annotate it with highlighting, underlining, and questions or comments in the margins. I normally do this on a printed copy of the article but you could do so on an electronic copy using appropriate software, such as Adobe Acrobat Professional. Many of the notes I take are comparisons between one source and another, sometimes entered into a table.

Whatever means of note-taking you choose, your plan for an essay often evolves as you learn and understand more about the topic you’re writing about. When literature searching, reading and note­taking, it is important to keep referring back to the purpose of your assignment, so that you don’t lose focus and waste time in gathering irrelevant information.


No matter how elegant your assignment plan, how extensive your reading or how detailed your notes, there comes a time when you have to start composing your assignment. This is the process of writing flowing prose in sentences and paragraphs (see Chapter 7). Having interviewed many academics, professional writers and successful students about their writing processes, I’m aware that there is much we have in common. Most of us do plenty of planning, research and, above all, thinking, but when it comes to composing we give ourselves permission to ’go for it’. What this means in practice is not being too self-critical when writing the first draft. Treat writing the first draft as ’getting your ideas down’.

There is good reason for not spending much time in writing this first draft. Painstakingly writing the first draft, line by line, scrutinising each sentence you write before moving on to the next, means that you may have invested a great deal of time. Having invested so much time at an early stage you will be less likely to revise what you have written. But revising it may be just what you need to do. There are various stages in the revision process, and the first often involves quite substantial changes, such as moving or rearranging whole paragraphs. The more time spent in writing the first draft, the less likely you are to invest time in substantially changing what you have written. But it is through redrafting that many of us come to write with clarity and precision. For most of us, writing with power comes through crafting our writing through several processes of revision (reviewing and editing). If too much time is invested in writing the first draft, and trying to perfect what we have written at an early stage, we are likely to be reluctant to make major changes to the argument and structure of our work; but doing so may be what is needed most.

They do it differently in English

If you have learnt to write academically in another language you will find that conventions in UK academic English are likely to be different to those with which you are familiar. For example, according to Karen Ottewell in the Language Centre at the University of Cambridge, and others who focus on working with international students, academic English has these characteristics amongst


It is reader-friendly. It is the responsibility of the writer to make their meaning clear to the reader. In some languages, this is not the case and the reader has to work hard at extracting meaning.

Context is explained rather than assumed. In some languages, much is assumed about the context of an academic communication. In UK academic English, context is often made explicit, e.g. in an essay, the breadth and depth of what is to follow is made clear near the beginning of the document.

Argument is developed cumulatively, in a logical and straightforward manner. Some languages do not develop an argument in a direct way, but have digressions before returning to the main theme of an argument. Writing in academic English is usually more straightforward. Old information often comes before new and simple before complex. One paragraph builds on another.

The writing style is concise and direct. Some languages do not express themselves in a direct manner, but the language is more poetic and philosophical. Some UK academics would describe this style of writing as ’flowery’ and with too much ’padding’ - unnecessary words. In most academic disciplines, most of the time, those who mark assignments are interested in students ’getting to the point’. Writing in a concise and direct manner means fewer words. It does not mean that the writing is any easier.

Writing text that is reader-friendly, where the context is explained, that develops an argument cumulatively, and that is concise and direct, is what many forms of English academic writing aspire to be.

Reviewing and editing

Thirty or so years ago, small desktop computers had barely been conceived. Students who typed their assignments used typewriters and had little opportunity to correct their work, other than retyping whole pages or making corrections on the line they had just typed. You have the opportunity to use word-processing software, which enables you to quickly and easily change what you have written. You should make good use of the opportunities your software provides to revise your work.

In publishing, it is common to consider the process of revising what has been written in three stages: developmental editing, copy-editing and proofreading. Developmental editing involves moving whole chunks of text around, such as changing the order of paragraphs in your account, rearranging the order of sentences in a paragraph, and substantially rewriting sentences. Significant amounts of material may be added or removed - whole paragraphs, tables, figures, citations and references. Developmental editing is most likely to happen just after you’ve written the first draft, or part of the first draft, but it can occur at later stages as well.

Developmental editing - to create a complete, cohesive account and powerful argument overall - is often key to effective writing. A key question at this stage should be ’Are you meeting the assignment guidelines (brief)?’

Copy-editing involves fine-tuning the sentences in your paragraphs. This includes checking grammar, punctuation and spelling and improving the readability of your text and the strengths of your argument. In your text, have you removed unwanted repetition and unnecessary words? It is an opportunity to check that you have included appropriate sections, subsections, tables and figures. Are the citations and references accurate and do they support your argument? Have you checked that any facts and assertions are correct?

Proofreading - these are the final checks to ensure that all is present and correct. This stage focuses on completeness, consistency and fine-scale correctness. Are the sections and subsections, citations and references, figures and tables, complete and consistent? Is the layout and presentation correct? And a final check: Have you met the assignment guidelines?

Knowing when to stop

A significant proportion of students find it difficult to ’move on’ from one stage of the writing process to the next. Some keep researching and reading, wishing to get to the bottom of the topic. In some cases, they might have been delaying composing. About half the undergraduate and postgraduate students I’ve asked regard composing as the most challenging part of the writing process.

Some students find it difficult to ’let go’ of their writing and hand it in, because they don’t feel it is good enough. Many students who become the most accomplished writers suffer from feelings of not having done enough or not feeling happy about what they’re handing in. However, you do have to hand in your work on time and meet the guidelines (the brief) set for it. The more you are aware of the different stages in the writing process - planning, researching and reading, composing, reviewing and editing - the more likely you are to manage the overall process effectively. That means completing the different stages so that you can be more or less satisfied with your work and finish it in time.