An Overview Of The Writing Process
The writing process often begins with a fleeting hunch about something you want to write about and ends with a completed essay. Writing that essay depends very much on your ability to think, read, and take notes, but it also depends on your capacity to complete a series of related tasks: accumulating evidence, formulating ideas, considering audience and purpose, preparing, organizing, drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading. We will look closely at these tasks in this chapter.
But to suggest that the writing process is linear-that you go through these tasks step by step, the same way every time would be to deny its most important characteristic: flexibility. You may discover a difference in the process almost every time you write an essay.
Writing an essay can be, and most often is, a messy business. Thinking and reading and drafting and rethinking and revising rereading go on and on as you write. The process moves back and forth; it is recursive. It usually involves some false starts as well as botched endings, jumbled middles, and muddled ideas. Do not be dismayed by the complications. You will get better and more efficient as you learn to be more comfortable with the writing process and its interesting complication. All writers face them, no matter what their level of experience. In chapter 4, you can watch E.B. White, a professional essayist, struggling to develop an idea in a single paragraph about the first moon walk. But you can tell that the struggle is accompanied by the pleasure of getting the words right, finally.
As you learn the different skills and the nature of the various tasks in the writing process, you will be less anxious about them; but relying only on that process still will not lead you to a good essay. You also have to concentrate on your writing. As you learn the essential skills and recognize the various writing tasks, you may even begin to enjoy this messy business of writing. The real pleasure comes when your readers understand what you want them to understand. That understanding is what you aim for; it is often your main purpose for writing.
Accumulating Evidence and formulating Ideas
To become a good writer, you need the two kinds of knowledge you have just read about knowledge about how to write and knowledge of a subject. You will accumulate knowledge about how to write as you study writing and as you write. You can acquire knowledge about a given subject much more deliberately, by way of experience, of course, but also through concentrated study. Let us consider briefly the subject civil disobedience-disobeying seemingly unjust laws through passive resistance-and how you might begin to acquire knowledge and evidence about it to gain insight that leads to ideas.
Reading about civil disobedience, you discover that people often have to make complex choices in the face of the law. As you read and think about civil disobedience and then start to write about it, you discover how disobedience can be civilized and nonviolent, how it can affect lives, and how it can lead to violence, just as it can lead to change in laws that a community considers unjust.
Studying such a controversial issue, you begin to realize that you have something to say about it that no one else has imagined quite the way you have. Your acquired knowledge provides the foundation for your idea and eventually becomes the evidence you use in your essay.
Ideas and evidence have a symbiotic relationship; they feed off each other. Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist, makes some interesting Observations about his own science that should help you understand more clearly the relationship between evidence and ideas:
Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s date. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air pending the outcome….In science,” fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.”
An idea accounts for evidence, provides a theory about it. An idea is your sense of what the evidence means, your explanation or interpretation of the facts. Your essay will be shaped and controlled by a leading idea (often called a thesis).
Think again about the topic of civil disobedience. It is not a new concept. The United States was founded on disobedience, not all of it civil. Looking back at U.S history, you can find numerous examples of important changes brought about by disobedience and revolutions. But the term acquired new meaning during the civil rights demonstrations in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the United States when African Americans began to speak out against racial injustice. If, as a writer, you choose to look into the matter of civil disobedience, you might focus on what has already happened, or you might focus on what is going on in the United States today. Wherever you look, you will find controversy-disagreement about past events or about future courses of action. When you find such controversy, you are probably on the scent of an idea.
The evidence you assemble about civil disobedience leads to questions: Under what condition is it permissible to break the law? What is justifiable violence? How should oppressed citizens respond to unjust laws? At first, such a question lead to a search for more evidence, but then those questions lead to answers, to your interpretation of what the evidence means. That in-perpetration is your idea, something you reason or intuit from the evidence.
As a writer, your dual tasks are to create a good idea from the available evidence and to find an interesting way to express the idea, often in an essay. You can never be sure about that available evidence-where it will come from, what you will think about it once you find it, how you will use it in your essay. At the outset, you cannot predict where your search for evidence will take you. Every time you begin the process of writing an essay, you are on the trail of discovery, on the scent of something new, something you can discover and express in words.
An essay is your attempt to express an idea through writing so that readers can understand and accept what you have discovered. As you have just Seen, the knowledge you acquire through study becomes the evidence you need in your essay to illustrate and develop your leading idea.
When you begin to decide how best to explain your idea and your reasons for believing it, you will have to select evidence from all that acquired knowledge. You have to consider what you know, think about your purpose, and think about what your readers need to know so that you can choose only the specific evidence that will help you present your idea. You will also have to organize your presentation into the form of an essay.