Writing is a task that no two people do the same way. However, there are some logical steps that every writer seems to follow in the creation of a paper. The process described here outlines those basic steps. Keep in mind that these steps are not exclusive of each other, and at times they can be rather liquid. Also, writers will notice that most of these steps are reciprocal; that is, work done in one area may necessitate returning to a step that you have already "completed."

A. Invention

Getting a paper started is tough for every writer; it's especially hard for a student writer who doesn't get to pick her own subjects: first she must learn about a broad subject area; then, she must find some topic within that broad area to write about, always with limited space and time. And if all this isn't enough, writers also have to develop their own ideas about their topic and explain those ideas with concrete support.

Does this sound familiar? Does it sound impossible? There are many ways to go about "inventing" a short paper; what follows is one very practical process that gets results:

  • Locate a subject: Your subject will depend on the kind of writing you are doing; if a subject has been assigned, make sure you know what it is (i.e., read the assignment sheet), and learn something about it (i.e., do your home work). Inventing a paper on a subject about which you know nothing is tough.
  • Focus on a narrow topic: Use the invention techniques described below to figure out what specific topics are within your subject area; once you have some specific options, commit to a good one. Don't waffle.
  • Come up with a controlling idea: No one can do this for you! Use invention techniques to help you see what you think about your topic. Again, after you have some options, pick an idea and stick to it.
  • Generate concrete examples that you can use to develop your paper: Concrete examples and reasoning are the heart of a paper. With your topic and controlling idea in mind, use invention techniques strenuously; push your thoughts beyond generalizations to concrete examples. The clause, "I hate potatoes," is general; "the texture, color, and flavor of potatoes does nothing for me," is a more concrete statement.

Invention Techniques (from The Allyn & Bacon Handbook)

  • Reading: use your notes on other people's ideas to jump start your own ideas, but be careful not to plagiarize.
  • Brainstorming: spend five minutes just listing ideas and then sort the list.
  • Freewriting: spend ten minutes writing about your subject or topic, reread your writing, and circle the topics or examples that you find in it.
  • Journalist's Question: consider your subject or topic and answer the questions who, what, when, where, why, and how; sort your answers, and make a list.
  • Journal Writing: keep a journal as you study your topic; reread it and circle the topics and examples that you wrote about.
  • The Many Parts Strategy: list out the parts of your subject or topic and ask of each one, "What is the use of this part or what are the consequences of this part?" Sort your answers, and you have a list.
  • Mapping: create a map with all the parts of your subject from the list you've just created.

B. Critical Reading

Critical reading means that a reader applies certain processes, models, questions, and theories that result in enhanced clarity and comprehension. There is more involved, both in effort and understanding, in a critical reading than in a mere "skimming" of the text. What is the difference? If a reader "skims" the text, superficial characteristics and information are as far as the reader goes. A critical reading gets at "deep structure" (if there is such a thing apart from the superficial text!), that is, logical consistency, tone, organization, and a number of other very important sounding terms.

What does it take to be a critical reader? There are a variety of answers available to this question; here are some suggested steps:

  • Prepare to become part of the writer's audience.
    After all, authors design texts for specific audiences, and becoming a member of the target audience makes it easier to get at the author's purpose. Learn about the author, the history of the author and the text, the author's anticipated audience; read introductions and notes.
  • Prepare to read with an open mind.
    Critical readers seek knowledge; they do not "rewrite" a work to suit their own personalities. Your task as an enlightened critical reader is to read what is on the page, giving the writer a fair chance to develop ideas and allowing yourself to reflect thoughtfully, objectively, on the text.
  • Consider the title.
    This may seem obvious, but the title may provide clues to the writer's attitude, goals, personal viewpoint, or approach.
  • Read slowly.
    Again, this appears obvious, but it is a factor in a "close reading." By slowing down, you will make more connections within the text.
  • Use the dictionary and other appropriate reference works.
    If there is a word in the text that is not clear or difficult to define in context: look it up. Every word is important, and if part of the text is thick with technical terms, it is doubly important to know how the author is using them.
  • Make notes.
    Jot down marginal notes, underline and highlight, write down ideas in a notebook, do whatever works for your own personal taste. Note for yourself the main ideas, the thesis, the author's main points to support the theory. Writing while reading aids your memory in many ways, especially by making a link that is unclear in the text concrete in your own writing.
  • Keep a reading journal
    In addition to note-taking, it is often helpful to regularly record your responses and thoughts in a more permanent place that is yours to consult. By developing a habit of reading and writing in conjunction, both skills will improve.

Critical reading involves using logical and rhetorical skills. Identifying the author's thesis is a good place to start, but to grasp how the author intends to support it is a difficult task. More often than not an author will make a claim (most commonly in the form of the thesis) and support it in the body of the text. The support for the author's claim is in the evidence provided to suggest that the author's intended argument is sound, or reasonably acceptable. What ties these two together is a series of logical links that convinces the reader of the coherence of the author's argument: this is the warrant. If the author's premise is not supportable, a critical reading will uncover the lapses in the text that show it to be unsound.

C. Thesis Statement


The thesis is usually considered the most important sentence of your essay because it outlines the central purpose of your essay in one place. A good thesis will link the subject of an essay with a controlling idea. Consider, for example, the following thesis:

People in the past spent a great deal of effort protecting themselves from witches.
Subject: people feared witches
Controlling Idea: people spent a great deal of effort protecting themselves


In a short essay, a thesis statement appears at, or near, the end of the introductory paragraph of the paper so that readers know the topic of the essay before they see the writer's statement of the central purpose of the essay. This way the first paragraph helps the reader understand why the writer is writing.


A thesis should be narrow in focus in order to allow the fullest exploration of its issues as possible, and it should reflect the type of paper that follows, whether it be persuasive or informative. Narrowing the focus of the thesis may require posing questions about it to yourself before committing to a final version.


What follows is a method for writing thesis statements that many writers have found useful (The Allyn & Bacon Handbook).

  • Decide what you are writing about:
    A clear, concise thesis statement does more than outline the subject in question; it makes the reader aware of the writer's stand on the subject in question, connecting a subject with a controlling idea.
  • Think about all the elements your paper will deal with:
    A thesis generally consists of a subject that contains within itself a number of smaller facts; the topic sentence of each paragraph that makes up the body of the paper should refer (in some clear way) back to the ideas contained within the thesis statement in order to keep the paper from digressing.
  • Think about the purpose and tone of your paper:
    A thesis statement should contain the main point of the paper and suggest to the reader a direction that the paper will take in exploring, proving, or disproving that main point.
  • State your main point in a sentence or two:
    A good writer can assert the main idea of a short, coherent essay briefly. Instead of rambling, be as straightforward as possible.
  • Revise your thesis as you develop your paper:
    A final version of a thesis statement will only be available after a draft of the paper it is a part of has been completed. The focus of the paper may change and evolve over the period it is written in; necessarily, the thesis statement should be revised to reflect the alterations in the paper.

Few writers finish a paper writing about the exact topic they begin with. While you write a paper, your main point may change. As you're finishing, make sure your thesis statement has changed along with the subject and controlling ideas of your paper.

D. Organization

When writers talk about organization, they are talking about arranging thoughts systematically in an orderly, functional way in order to create a harmonious or united action. Your paper should be arranged so that your purpose is clear, your thesis logically stated and developed, and your final conclusion plainly drawn from the preceding material. Of course, different kinds of papers call for different organizations. A paper arguing a political position will be organizationally different from a paper explaining the migratory patterns of African swallows. Two kinds of papers that you will encounter often are the informative paper and the argumentative paper.

Informative paper

The informative paper basically states "This is way things are. This is how they work. This is how to use them." This kind of paper will often be organized in one of the following ways:

  • Codified order: Present information and ideas in a sequential or other logical order.
  • Definition: Arrange the information around a definition.
  • Classification: Arrange examples in varieties.
  • Comparison: Demonstrate similarities between two or more people or things.
  • Contrast: Demonstrate differences between two or more people or things.

Argumentative/Persuasive paper

The argumentative paper states a premise and then gives support for that premise. This kind of paper will often be organized in one of the following ways:

  • Induction: Infer a general principle from a group of examples.
  • Deduction: Infer a group of effects given a general principle (i.e. Cause/Effect).
  • Sign: Establish that one thing indicates the presence or action of another.
  • Analogy: Compare one topic to another seemingly unrelated topic to illuminate a relationship.

One of the most common problems of organization is including extraneous material. As you are composing the body of your paper--perhaps following the structures illustrated above--make sure that every paragraph you write puts forward the idea of thesis. If a paragraph does not clearly support or further the argument of the thesis, it does not belong in the paper. Following this rule will prevent you from discussing unrelated material. Remember, always keep the thesis in mind.
Once you have organized your thoughts, you should begin to think about crafting paragraphs and introducing and concluding your paper.

E. Crafting Paragraphs

A paragraph is a group of sentences that are related to each other because they all refer to a controlling idea; this idea is often expressed in a topic sentence, a sentence that functions in a paragraph much like a thesis statement functions in a paper. Paragraphs work together to develop the controlling idea established by the thesis. Consider the following example:

  • Thesis statement: People in the past spent a great deal of effort protecting themselves from evil potatoes.
  • Topic sentence for a typical paragraph: Anti-evil-potato devices were understandably numerous since every bad thing that happened could be blamed on the power of an evil potato.
  • Subject of paragraph: Anti-evil-potato devices
  • Relation to controlling idea: People's fear of evil potatoes forced them to devise equipment to keep evil potatoes away.

The paragraph is a unit of organization and development. This structure is used to fully explore set of sub-topics that a thesis statement suggests. Each paragraph develops a specific idea that supports the thesis statement; it also connects that idea to the other ideas presented in the paper. Paragraphs can develop and unify a set of ideas in many different ways: writers must simply make sure that their reader understands how all the paragraphs in a paper work together to achieve the writer's purpose.

Hopefully, you will collect several of these items into a paper of some kind. How you store your paragraphs is very important. Each paragraph must be separated from the others by means of indentation. Remember that each paragraph must also relate its distinct idea about the thesis to the ideas developed in other paragraphs.

Decide what the paragraph will deal with:
Since each paragraph begins with a specific purpose (to explore a distinct sub-topic of the thesis), each topic sentence should be specific and clear. The organizational pattern of your paper (based mainly upon the type of paper you are writing) will help you decide what issues you should deal with and in what order to deal with them.

Think about all the issues that this paragraph should deal with:
Each sentence within a specific paragraph must support the idea posited by the topic sentence. As you reflect on a particular paragraph, ask yourself, "What are the issues involved in this topic? How does this relate to my overall controlling idea? Do my sentences adequately explore this topic sentence?"

Think about the purpose and tone of your paragraph:
Each paragraph must provide a thorough analysis of its topic. If a paragraph provides information that is not directly related to the thesis, revise or eliminate the extraneous information. Ask yourself whether each paragraph contributes to the focus and tone of the entire paper and follows the map laid out in your thesis.

Be efficient with your sentence development in your paragraph:
A paragraph is not a paper. Each paragraph represents a separate step towards a general conclusion about your topic. To that end, each paragraph should develop its idea with as many (or as few) sentences as necessary to make its point clear. Many of you have heard that a paragraph can be considered a "miniature essay" in which there is an introduction (topic sentence), some supportive materials (the sentences of the paragraph), and a conclusion (a concluding sentence). This structure works, but keep in mind that regardless of sentence length or number your main goal is efficiently and completely examining individual ideas.

Revise your paragraph organization as you develop your paper:
It may be that your thesis will change as you develop your paper; consequently, topic sentences for your paragraphs must change with it. Don't hesitate to discard vague or tangential ideas in favor of more direct ones. Also, make sure each paragraph moves your paper toward its goal, whether it be informative or persuasive. Finally, make sure each paragraph is part of a logical sequence of ideas that are linked by transitions.

Believe it or not there are more than one type of paragraph. You may want to investigate some of the intricacies of the introduction and conclusion varieties.

F. Word-processing

G. Revision

Revision tends to be divided into two categories, changes that alter the meaning of a text and changes that leave meaning intact. Think of how many changes you can make to a piece of writing.

Since there are so many things a writer can do to a text and, often, so little time, it makes sense to make those changes that will make the meaning of your writing more clear to a reader. There are, of course, lots of ways to figure out how to revise a particular piece of writing; every writer is different. What follows is a method that works, either on a whole paper or on a paragraph. 

  • Finish a draft or at least part of a draft before you consider revising--otherwise you may never get anything finished.
  • Reread your draft and decide what issues you need to focus on. Always start with the most serious meaning-blocking issues and work down; always make notes on the draft that you read, and consider getting another reader's opinion--maybe even a Writing Center tutor's opinion.
    Levels to consider:
    • subject & purpose
    • shape
    • paragraphs
    • sentences
    • format
  • Focus on a single issue.
  • Maintaining your focus, talk or write through potential solutions to places where communication breaks down; often problems and solutions are easier to find with the help of an objective reader (e.g., another writer, a Writing Center tutor, or your instructor).
  • Sketch in solutions and write them up.
  • Repeat steps 1 through 5 as often as necessary.

Revision Checklist

Words like thesis, organization, paragraph, coherence, and comma splice, don't exist just to make your life miserable. All of these terms define the effects of a piece of writing. That is, a paper with a well-defined thesis lets a reader know where it's going; a well-organized paper is one that enables a reader to get from beginning to end without getting lost. Your handbook or a Writing Center tutor can help you describe the effects of your writing (probably using terms like those listed above), but only you can decide to make your writing more meaningful or effective. A revision checklist like the following one can help you write a better paper, but only if you understand what makes effective writing and are willing to make changes.

Check your draft for the following devices:


  • thesis
  • unified information
  • tone


  • organizational pattern
  • transitional words
  • introduction & conclusion
  • coherent information


  • topic sentences
  • examples
  • warrants
  • transitional words


  • complete sentences
  • sentence variety
  • transitional words


  • special punctuation
  • page setup
  • documentation

Checking for these devices is one way of making sure that your paper sticks to and develops a single idea. Of course, a list cannot replace your commitment to communicating with an audience. If you are not trying to affect your reader with an idea or two, perfect structure and grammar will only go so far.

Revision Exercise

Look at a piece of writing that you are revising. Work through each of the steps, starting at the top and moving down the list. Make sure that you determine carefully where communication breaks down and how you can go about reestablishing it. Sketch in a solution before setting off on a re-write.

H. Documentation

In MLA documentation style, you acknowledge your sources by keying in brief parenthetical citations in text and corresponding this with an alphabetical list of work you have cited at the end of the paper.

  • Making In-text Citations
  • Preparing a Work Cited List

In-text citations

There are two ways by which to acknowledge your source. You may wish to quote or paraphrase. Look at the following examples.

Direct Quotation

Author in text Stewig stresses that logic "must pervade any fantasy from the beginning and end"(399).

Author in reference

Recognizing this need, it may be declared that "logic must pervade any fantasy from beginnig and end" (Stewig 399).

Paraphrase or Summary

Author in text Stewig stresses the need for logic in children's fantasy (399)
Author in reference The need for logic in children's fantasy has been recognized (Stewig 399).

I. Proofreading

Proofreading is part of a larger process called revision, a process that is worth thinking about. Proofreading deals with surface changes; that is with changes that don't alter the meaning of a text. Since there are so many things a writer can do to a text and, often, so little time, it makes sense to make those changes that will make the meaning of your writing more clear to a reader before focusing on surface changes. Still, a paper must be proofread before it is handed in to an academic audience. In college, great ideas only get a writer so far. What follows is a process that many writers use to make certain that their writing is ready for a critical audience.

  • Finish a draft or at least part of a draft before you consider revising at any level--otherwise you may never get anything finished.
  • Of course, you will always start with the most serious meaning-blocking issues and work down:
    • Revision Issues
      • subject & purpose
      • shape
      • paragraphs
      • sentences
      • format
    • Eventually, you will work your way down to the level of sentences and format, the level at which you will "copyedit." When you focus on sentences and format, there are several things you will need to consider:
    • Copyediting Issues
      • style
      • grammar
      • punctuation
      • word choice
  • Make a list of the issues that you usually struggle with and decide what issue(s) you will focus on first (if you have no idea what to start with, talk to another writer, a Writing Center tutor, or your instructor).
  • Maintaining your focus, go through your paper a sentence at a time and locate and solve problems--use a handbook to find solutions; don't just make them up.
  • Repeat step 4 as often as necessary.

J. Online Resources

There are close to one hundred web sites where one can find self-help documents on the writing process. Many are gopher-based collections; a few are true hyperlinked writing guides that allow the user to follow links to different topics as she makes her way through the various stages of a writing project. Materials available vary widely in quality, presentation, and degree of detail. Here are some links:


Last updated: 3/6/2009 11:11:57 AM