The late William Zinsser, a rockstar among writing teachers, has been quoted for years by instructors in attempts to encourage students of nonfiction writing. One quotation attributed to his book, On Writing Well (1976, p. vii), is “Writing is thinking on paper.”
There are likely a number of ways to interpret Zinsser’s statement. As it relates to technical writing, it may point to the idea that writing is not a specific concrete action, but a vague, often messy process. Instead of being a linear exercise of completing a series of ordered steps to finish with a complete product, it’s a recursive process through which we must remain flexible and open to growth and discovery, through both successes and errors.
This chapter aims to help students develop skills in using writing processes. You will practice exploring a topic and developing comfort with starting the process of writing. You will also actively form a research question and develop it into a working thesis; organize information and plan a draft using some form of outline; and write a complete first draft. Concepts that may be new to students include the following: drafting, outlining, prewriting, reporters’ questions, research question, and thesis statement.
Explore a Topic
Sometimes your writing assignment leaves the topic choice to you; other times, a topic is presented by your instructor. In either case, begin your writing process at the beginning: that is, begin by thinking on paper.
While learning high school or first-year college composition, you may already have used one or more of the popular methods of idea generation and topic exploration that writing texts and instructors call prewriting. Writers may use a variety of activities to develop ideas and otherwise prepare to write a document, including but not limited to brainstorming, freewriting, listing, and clustering. No specific prewriting activity is required for technical writing: many options exist, and students should try various methods to find what works for each situation. A selection of prewriting activities is introduced here: you may find others you like best.
A is for asking questions
Researchers ask who, what, when, where, why, and how questions in the process of exploring topics and developing starting points for their research. Whether you know a great deal about the assigned topic or very little, using these reporters’ questions to gather information can help you narrow the topic and generate ideas about the focus for your writing. You may elect to ask your questions through academic search engines provided by your university library. Your topic may also allow for you to interview one or more subject-matter experts, using reporters’ questions in discussion as a means of sparking your own creativity. However you approach asking questions, the sooner you begin writing down questions and seeking answers, the faster you can get comfortable with your own unique approach to the first step of your process.
B is for brainstorming
Sometimes the term brainstorming is used as a synonym for prewriting. You may have had experience, for example, with freewriting as a form of brainstorming, in which you were asked to write everything that came into your mind for a prescribed period of time. Freewriting can be challenging because of its lack of structure and the common fear of a blank page (or screen), but it can also be a useful warmup exercise to help relax your mind.
Within the umbrella term of brainstorming, you may find it useful to begin writing lists. Listing is a prewriting method of some writers who prefer linear thinking. Listing is an adaptable method of brainstorming that allows writers to feel more focused than when freewriting while still thinking on paper. The adaptability of this method is demonstrated in the exercise below.
C is for clustering
A prewriting method that can work well for visual and tactile learners involves visual representations of ideas and their relationships to each other. This method is also described as mind mapping within this textbook. Writers may begin by writing the topic in the middle or on the top of a blank sheet of paper (usually with a circle or box around the topic). As ideas or subtopics occur during thinking and discussion, branches with more clusters – like leaves on a tree – are drawn and connected to each other with lines to indicate relationships the author may want to explore. Figure 1 is an example of what a clustering prewrite may look like.
Figure 1. Example of a prewriting cluster for the topic of Body Image. (Costello, 2020)
In the example above, the general topic area is located in the center of the cluster or mind map. Each of the nodes radiating directly from that topic (see Figure 2 below) is an idea that might be explored as a subtopic about which a student could research and write. The outer ring of nodes in Figure 1 represent even more specific areas the student could explore, still narrowing the general topic of “body image” to a manageable subject for a paper.
Figure 2. First level of subtopics branching from central topic. ( “Mind Maps & Lotus Chart” (untitled graphic) in Our Virtual Library by Cathy Costello is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA-4.0)
A last note about prewriting: it may be uncomfortable to begin, but it is worth trying.
Activity A: Prewriting practice
Your instructor may provide you with a general topic area as a starting point. For purposes of this exercise, start with something like “pet owners.” Work alone or with a partner to try out the various prewriting activities described here. You will find this experience eye-opening and perhaps even enjoyable if you give yourself time to explore.
- Ask questions: Talk with your partner about the general topic of pet owners. Together, make some notes about the ideas you each develop as you talk. It’s important to realize that some ideas will be abandoned for any number of reasons: that’s a part of the process of prewriting. Just keep talking and taking notes. You may also want to spend time “Googling” key words for ideas and current news. While commercial internet search engines are not ideal for scholarly research, they certainly can be an easy way to start exploring a topic to find the subtopics that you may want to write about.
- Brainstorm and Cluster: As you proceed through this practice activity, you may notice the steps begin to melt together: in other words, you are likely to ask more questions, maybe build a list or two, then draw a mind map, then ask more questions, and so on. Ideally, prewriting practice will lead you from a general topic area to a specific aspect of the topic that you find interesting and want to research. Your writing assignment outcomes will be the most successful if based on a research question that is clear, concise, and compelling.
Develop a Thesis
Now that you have narrowed the scope of the topic you want to write about, it is time to formulate a research question. The research question becomes the focus of your inquiry and guiding point for your research. Your initial research question is often suggested by the most interesting or compelling information you have found through the process of prewriting.
A research question is a concise and complete sentence in the form of a question identifying the specific research topic to be explored.
Stating a research question is really nothing more complicated than writing a question that you want to answer for yourself through research. Consider how you might develop a research question related to one of the subtopics you identified with your partner about Pet Owners:
- What did you learn during your brainstorming session that surprised or puzzled you? The answer might lead you to a research question.
- Did you locate and discuss either an ethical or legal issue related to pets and their owners?
- How about something related to new technological development?
- Is there something historically significant that interests you about the topic?
- There are likely areas of psychology and human health (as well as other academic disciplines) where recent studies have developed interesting new information.
Review Figures 4 and 5 in the “Reporting Research Outcomes” chapter of this textbook for an illustration of the process to follow as you develop a working thesis based on a research question.
Activity B: research question practice
It’s time to get your feet wet in the research question-writing process. In the space provided, write two sentences in the form of questions that explain what you want to learn from your research into a subtopic of Pet Owners. Base your questions on one of the subtopics you identified in your prewriting exercise. You may want to refer to the notes you made during the clustering activity.
Next, exchange draft questions with a partner and review each other’s work with the following checklist:
- Are the draft questions complex enough to require more than a yes or no answer?
- Did the writer state the question clearly enough that search terms can be identified?
- Are the questions specific and focused clearly on only one issue?
- Is the question answerable with research given the limitations of your assignment?
Now, revise your draft research questions using the feedback provided by your partner:
Once you have a clear and specific research question, you are ready to take the next step in developing a working thesis: the controlling idea of a document stated in a declarative sentence and including the purpose and organization method of the document. Writers subscribe to a number of different approaches to this writing task: one simple way to proceed is to answer your research question in the form of an affirmative statement.
If you have developed an appropriate research question, you ideally will not already know how to answer that question without conducting further research: therefore, you must begin searching, collecting, and reading information now. Your working thesis is the answer you think you will find to the research question based on what you now know about the topic.
Sometimes this affirmative thesis statement is said to represent your position on the topic, and it presents the beginning of your main argument in a piece of writing. As you may be aware from working in other chapters of this text, the thesis itself is an argument, and it is supported by a series of arguments that make up an essay or other genre of academic writing. Review Figure 3 in the “Reporting Research Outcomes” chapter of this textbook for an illustration of the process to follow as you develop a working thesis based on a research question.
Activity C: thesis writing practice
- Watch this short video presentation to confirm your understanding of the parts and purpose of a thesis statement:
- Choose one of the revised research questions you developed in Activity B. If you have not done your initial research yet, do that now so you can identify your position on the topic as you answer your research question with a working thesis statement:
- Exchange draft thesis statements with a partner in class, and compare the drafts to the following checklist:
- Can you easily identify the specific subject the document will be about?
- Is the writer’s position on the subject clear? Or, what is the direction of the discussion?
- Does the thesis suggest the main reasons (arguments) for the writer’s position?
- Is the organization of the document indicated in the thesis statement?
For additional help writing thesis statements, refer to the Structuring an Essay section of the “Writing Essays” chapter of this textbook.
Outline for successful writing
Some students enter college writing courses having learned to outline as a way of starting writing projects. Some others have little or no experience with writing outlines. In the space below, reflect on your own experience with outlining as part of the writing process.
Discuss your understanding about outlining with your classmates and instructor. Is it something writers do as a first step? Is it important to complete your outline before you begin writing the document? Is there a set of rules writers should follow in creating outlines? Use the space below to comment on these questions and add any others that arise as you discuss outlines.
Completing an outline before writing begins
You may have learned that an outline is a framework for a writing assignment. Following that idea, then, you may want to build the framework of a paper before you apply the sheetrock and other building materials: that is, the detailed paragraphs. Sometimes teachers require you to submit a complete sentence outline for approval before you begin writing an essay or other document. If you have been successful in completing such an outline, you may have been taught to simply build a paragraph out of each main point or topic sentence you wrote in the outline. At the end of that process, you should have a complete and well-organized paper.
What do you think may be some problems writers encounter with this “outline first” method?
It may have been difficult to think of disadvantages or downsides to the “outline first” approach to writing, particularly if you value organization, efficiency, and control in your schoolwork. Recall the premise at the beginning of this chapter: writing is not a linear process, but a messy, recursive one. It involves moving around within the process, being flexible, and changing things in order to complete an organized, efficient, and clear final product. Take a look at this video for an introduction lecture by Dr. Jacob Lauritzen, Adjunct Professor at Eastern Arizona College (used with Dr. Lauritzen’s permission).
Writing an outline as part of the writing process
The main reason for starting an outline as soon as you have developed a working thesis is so you have a clear focus point for beginning your research and writing. Some students find it is helpful to begin an outline by using a format similar to the example.
You may have done enough early research to know what the main points would be in this example. Perhaps you could easily write the topic sentences, discuss the facts and reasons, and provide paraphrased evidence from the data you found in your research. In other cases, you may not yet know what claims to make in support of your argument and still need to do more research. Still another possibility: you may find as you conduct further research that you change your mind about your thesis completely. Whatever point you arrive at when you build the basic structure of your outline from the working thesis, recognize this fact: an outline works best when it is not a rigid structure for which a writer must find arguments and evidence that fit. Instead, the outline provides a writer with a tool to use in keeping track of the development of a piece of writing. Outlines are intended to maintain the framework of your writing: and sometimes that means new information changes the message.
The real strength of using outlining as a tool throughout the writing process, however, is evident when writers practice outlining as an ongoing activity rather than a discrete step. In his video lecture “How to Think About Outlining,” instructor Kevin deLaplante (2015) explains it this way:
“In a real writing project of any significance or substance, you don’t know in advance how the completed draft is going to look. You may start out with a plan, but almost always, that plan gets altered as you work your way through the piece.In other words, the outline itself is something that evolves over time.
And this is the way it is for everyone. It’s not a defect of your writing that the structure changes over time, it’s a natural part of the writing process. Getting the structure of your essay right is an achievement; the process of writing is the means by which you discover and create this structure.”
So, when do I write an outline?
As you learn the practice of technical writing, you are identifying and mastering skills that will help you communicate information to an audience in ways that will achieve your determined purpose. To a degree, when outlining and drafting, you are communicating with yourself about your own writing process. To better understand your own purpose and the message you are writing, try to begin outlining as soon as you have a working thesis. Remember, though, you must keep reviewing and revising your outline as new information and ideas come to light that refine or change the purpose and message of your writing.
Do you think outlines are always helpful or necessary? Why or why not? Explain your answer:
Write a complete draft
You may be wondering why you have done so much writing at this point in the chapter – but you still don’t have a completed essay or report. Clearly, a writing process involves a good deal of note-taking, thinking, reviewing, reading, and writing before getting to the actual task of putting paragraphs together and creating a multiple-page piece of work. If you have worked through all the steps outlined in this chapter, however, you are likely to be ready to write that first draft. What follows are some points of advice for drafting a college-level document.
To cite, or not to cite?
The actual question is not whether to cite (yes, you have to cite). The question is when you should insert needed in-text citations. Some professionals recommend skipping in-text citations until the second round of drafting (that is, after most of the paragraphs are fleshed out). It is worth noting, however, that technical writing is the focus of practice in this chapter: and in order to be accurate and avoid misattributing information to sources, inserting in-text citations during the drafting process is strongly recommended. This point is especially important because most – if not all – of the source material technical writers use is integrated through paraphrasing rather than direct quotations. It is essential that writers provide appropriate and complete identification of sources in part because the line between original ideas and those that originated from research sources can easily become blurred. Cite sources at the same time you include them in a draft document for the best results.
Is one really good draft enough?
Drafting refers to the act of writing the first and subsequent versions of a document; a draft is what writers call all iterations of the document up to the final version. University of Maryland, Baltimore Writing Center Associate Director Clancy Clawson discusses some methods of drafting (2015), explaining that fast drafting and slow drafting each can be useful for students:
- Fast drafting: a writer gets all their thoughts out onto a page as quickly as ideas will flow, writing without concern about wording. This method might involve notetaking by the writer to him/herself on the page about items that still need to be explored.
- Slow drafting: the writer’s focus is on developing sentences and paragraphs with the understanding they will address wording and readability during editing.
Note that both methods require revision and editing. One common approach to drafting is to spend a prescribed period of time writing a slow draft, then setting the draft aside for a day before revising and editing. You will most likely find that errors previously unnoticed will be very evident after time away from the document. Additionally, taking a fresh look at your thesis statement and the arguments you drafted to support that thesis may help you bring sharper focus to what you really think and want to say in your document.
In short: the only real error you can make in drafting is submitting a first draft as a final version.
Technical writing is a clear, concise, complete, and correct result of a non-linear, messy process. Writing processes provide a path for students to travel as they follow ideas through exploration, development, and organization into a message. By employing a writing process, you may find the challenges of creating draft documents from rough ideas become an efficient and satisfying activity that boosts your confidence in your own ability to create and present an effective message.
Developmental writing assignment
Read the following excerpt from Kristin Milligan’s essay, “Formal Outlines are Always Useful” (2017) licensed under a CC-BY 4.0 license. Create an outline detailing the author’s argument: refer to the handout “The Reverse Outline” in the “Writing Essays” chapter of this textbook for the steps to follow.
Document creation technical writing assignment
- Identify a topic area you can explore that is acceptable to your instructor. Use the same processes you practiced working through this chapter on the general topic of Pet Owners, including: practicing prewriting activities; developing a research question; defining a working thesis; and drafting an initial outline.
- Exchange outlines with a partner in class. Based on the information provided by your partner in his or her outline, review source materials and discuss the outline with your partner. Is the thesis clear and convincing? Can you suggest different or more specific arguments based on your understanding and research?
- Together with your partner, write a report in the format and answering the questions specified by your instructor.
deLaplante, K. (2015). How to think about outlining on YouTube at https://criticalthinkeracademy.com/courses/a-essays/lectures/315834
Lauritzen, J. (2017). How to write an outline. Read, Write, and Cite on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1t4E7pJbIpY&t=186s
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2019). Resources for writers: the writing process. License: CC-BY-SA-3.0. Retrieved from https://cmsw.mit.edu/writing-and-communication-center/resources/writers/writing-process
Milligan, K. (2017). Formal outlines are always useful. In Ball, C. E. and Loewe, D. M. (Eds.), Bad ideas about writing (pp. 163-167). License: CC-BY. Retrieved from https://textbooks.lib.wvu.edu/badideas/badideasaboutwriting-book.pdf
University of Maryland, Baltimore (2015). How to plan and write a paper: how to draft on YouTube at https://youtu.be/myHkqdkhBYg