Undergraduate Perspectives

Undergraduate Column: Talk To Us About Your Writing Process

Fenwick Library

For many undergraduate writers, being introduced and reintroduced to the writing process is an important part of learning to write in an academic community. Some of the most important aha moments I’ve had as an undergraduate writer have come from these infrequent opportunities to listen to my professors talk about their own writing, their experiences as writers, and their strategies for overcoming difficulties. I find this especially true as I take courses on the 300 and 400-levels. As my writing becomes more intensive, the insights I can gain from conversations with professors about their own writing has become invaluable.

Unfortunately, these moments are not often shared in a classroom setting. Even though I’m just being introduced to many aspects of the field, it’s often assumed I’ve learned everything I need to know about writing as a professional. My professors assume I know what they mean when they say that want a particular type of paper, on a very specific topic, or that I need to find a particular type of source. Talking me through the many different processes—from the initial questions that generate my interest, to what audiences and publications in the field expect from writers, to how I might integrate the sources I have found into my own thinking—is one way of helping me to understand the expectations I will face as I continue to work on a project, move into other classes, or enter the the workplace.

The components of the larger process of completing a project may look different from person to person. Some of my professors help me learn how the process and the task are interrelated by explaining their own processes and decision making. Some brainstorm by mind mapping, others through conversation with others. Some people brainstorm very well by freewriting. Others read first and make notes about their reactions. Some writers do all of these before and after other parts of the process, but overall a brainstorming or note taking session is where many of us begin our lengthier processes of putting together a piece of writing. Brainstorming to me always conjures the image of a brain with a lighting bolt—and true to this image, I find it a fun and active way to generate ideas.

Even at this early stage, I’ve learned that I need to be thinking about my audience and my purpose for this work. Who would be my reader? What do they need from me in order to find my words credible, significant, and educational? What do I want them to be take away from this piece I’ve written? What do I want them to remember?

It may sound a bit too simple, but I want to stress how important this strategy can be for undergraduate writers. In my Social Psychology class, we held a brainstorming discussion half way through the semester. The discussion focused on the guided questions our professor had constructed. We discussed each question and wrote down our ideas on the board. We then chose the topic for our paper from these ideas. Listening to the ideas of other students in that class made me think more deeply about my own ideas. In a way I was learning how to think my way through a problem to the sort of solution that would be acceptable to my peers in psychology. When I am given the chance to develop my ideas in class, these conversations shape my thinking and planning in important ways. I can shore up my own thinking and prepare for questions that I might need to answer in what I write.

Research term papers cause every student to squirm in their seat. Truly deep and helpful research is the hardest and longest part of the writing process. When professors share their own experiences with research—whether original or based on library sources or work with others—they can help us to learn from their experiences solving problems in their own research processes. What did they do when they found themselves going in circles? How did they finally track down that important source? How did they deal with ALL of the sources they had to read to be current on the thinking in the field? How do they analyze documents to answer their own questions? These conversations are not just interesting, they show me how work in the field is done. Where do new ideas come from? How do I manage my time, the work load, the new vocabulary and forms I’m encountering?

One professor explained to my class that there are crucial steps to reading a scientific paper. She suggested we evaluate the date the paper was published, read the introduction, method, and conclusion, and pay attention to the sourcing in the paper. My professor talked at length about paying attention to the sources used in a paper. She often suggested that we back track some of the authors research so we could find more sources and have a better understanding of the subject material. She also said that we should write, highlight, and scribble over every article, since annotation is key for in-depth research. We should be talking back and keeping notes, because those questions and comments and jokes might help us to make stronger connections in our own projects.

I always appreciate when professors talk about how to conduct research instead of how to cite research. I walked away from my professor’s class knowing that annotated bibliographies would be the key to future successes in my writing. With annotated bibliographies, it is easier for me to not only keep track of my research, but to keep detailed notes on what I’ve read and what I think I may be able to do with that text in my own writing.

Moreover, when a professor shares feedback with me and explains how I might revise to reflect that feedback, I always find it to be extremely helpful. I believe feedback is important to my growth as a writer. I often have a hard time, though, distinguishing between feedback and corrections when I get back a paper. I’ve received papers back that have been covered in red ink, but on the last page it says, “Great job!” I find this extremely confusing. I’m still left with the same question, “Well, did they like it?”, or “Are they just being nice?” Rarely do I hear my professors talk about how to read and respond to the feedback in general or what exactly they would like me to do when I receive their feedback.

In my history class last semester, my professor gave us extremely clear feedback on our drafts. In her class we had to write three variations of the same paper. The first was a draft of our idea and our own initial reading of a source. The second was the research we collected on our topic, and, finally, we put all of that together for our final paper. Our professor would provide feedback on every paper, but make a clear distinction between what we simply needed to correct and what we yet needed to think through to make our draft stronger. For instance, on my second paper she asked me, “How does your argument differ from your primary secondary source?” I thought I had made my argument very clear already, but her feedback made me realize that I had simply repeated my secondary source’s argument. I immediately went back to my piece and started my revisions. I had to revise substantially, but her feedback gave me a frame to see what needed to change, not simply what I hadn’t done well. Her feedback at the end of the course was, “That was a great paper, and I could finally hear you!”

When professors hold discussions about writing as a process—really talking about the nuts and bolts of preparing for, creating, and revising a project—it helps me be more comfortable in the tasks of writing. This modeling and feedback provides opportunities for me to reflect upon and understand my own processes. Slowing down and making explicit the many hidden elements of academic work helps me become a stronger writer. When a professors work with me on the task at hand, it not only helps my writing but builds my confidence as a student. I would encourage more professors to take the time to engage in these discussions with their students.